David Hoose juxtaposed earlier works with later more mature ones, which made for a revealing evening with Collage New Music on January 24 at Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Nearly everything on the program leaned in some way toward refractions of preexisting music, while two compositions took direct routes: a two-voice ballata of Landini for David Liptak’s Govine vagha and the aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for Fred Lerdahl’s Chasing Goldberg.
Opening with Missy Mazzoli’s youthful Still Life with Avalanche (2009), Hoose’s Pierrot lunaire-styled ensemble brought to life a Spanish scene augmented by three harmonicas. Phrygian sounds of Flamenco energized by tango-like rhythms echoed around her sound canvas. Mazzoli created a single movement, playing soundtrack ambience off against patterned designs. It was an interesting weave resulting in an attractive tone painting with surprisingly pleasant gestures.
In contrast to Mazzoli’s longer, outwardly freer play was that of Lerdahl’s inwardly shorter sonic “recreation of the mind” — as Bach might have put it. Chasing Goldberg (2004) is a brilliant bending of the theme Bach took for his celebrated set of variations. While I was not completely sure of where I was heading in the Mazzoli Still Life, Chasing Goldberg, for me, had a sense of the inevitable. In the latter, I was less an observer, more a participant keeping up with impeccable alterations Lerdahl cogently imposed on Goldberg’s tune. Lerdahl’s apt title, technical acumen, and inventive playfulness gelled with pianist Christopher Oldfather’s totally spellbinding performance. Cyclic Descent and Scalar Rhythms completed Lerdahl’s absorbing set of three short piano pieces entitled Three Diatonic Etudes (2004-2009).
Then it was back to a more visceral music, Wind/Unwind (2002) by Dorothy Chang. Wind became “I. Spiraling,” which really seemed shaped more along the lines of a crescendo driving to an intense climax. Hoose described “(a little interlude),” which came next, as “a fractured waltz.” Unwind then became “II. Maniacal.” Unwind or “Manical” clipped along at incredible speed and intensity that turned out be more fun for me than it did “a violent din” for Music Director Hoose. Not surprising, though, was how much his description of the first movement differed as well. He called it “gentle, lyrical”—I thought it was dark, at times morbid. So goes perception! The tiny three-note figure that created much of “maniacal” developed in many exciting ways. I realized its virtuosity and force necessitated intervention but found such to be more distraction that allowed my mind to wander away from the music. Maybe this was the composer’s intent.
David Liptak based his Govine vagha (1996) on Francesco Landini’s 14th-century ballata of the same name. The text of the song begins, “Comely maiden, I never felt love’s virtue, but you, the highest good, have placed it in my heart, your servant.” A violin and cello duet of the original ballata both preceded and followed Liptak’s intelligently refracted composition. Liptak, Professor of Music at the Eastman School of Music, cleverly crafted phrases that began with his own music then ended with that of the Medievalist, this, often with a deft sleight of hand. The slower middle part, with its extended tremolos on the vibraphone and other instruments, fell upon a too-common ground of contemporary classical music.
Yet another collocation: those melded entrances and exits of Liptak and Landini were followed by Lerdahl’s wondrous overlapping arrivals and departures in Fantasy Etudes (1985). The only composition on collage’s program that did not receive its first performance at this January concert, Fantasy Etudes sounded fresh — no small thing given its somewhat ripe age. Complexity, clarity, craftsmanship all spun out of the gifted composer’s natural musical instincts. These superb etudes, twelve in all, and Lerdahl’s other pieces on this program, are the kind I want to go back and hear over again. He has forged a highly articulate and engaging language.
Kudos goes to Collage New Music for its wondrous performances of every piece, and to David Hoose, who went well beyond the virtuosic, exposing the humanity within these contemporary works.