On Sunday, March 6, at the Longy School of Music, Collage New Music, under the direction of David Hoose, presented six works for flute (Christopher Krueger), clarinet/bass-clarinet (Robert Annis), violin (Catherine French), cello (Joel Moerschel), piano (Donald Berman), and percussion (Robert Schulz), two of the works also for mezzo-soprano (Paula Murrihy), “Who could ask for anything more”?! These are among the finest artists of contemporary (or any other) music, and their performances on this occasion were exemplary. The roster of composers included the late Donald Sur (1935-1999), and then in reverse order of age: James Ricci (b. 1954), Peter Child (b. 1953), Fred Lerdahl (b. 1943), and John Harbison (b. 1938). Undoubtedly there were other programming reasons for this arrangement: the two halves of the program ended with song cycles, which proved to be stunning climaxes. The audience, many of whom were aging composers (and critics) themselves, was collegially appreciative.
Literally hundreds of composers, especially in the last twenty-five years, have written for this combination of six instruments. The sonic possibilities are rich: pitting the strings against the winds, the high strings and winds together against the low, the amazing combinations of piano plus vibes (or marimba or chimes), &c.—the sonic possibilities seem endless with these deceptively simple means.
A Neo-Platonic Epistrophe While Crossing Times Square (1980), by the Korean-born Donald Sur, excluded flute and percussion, however; it was written for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano. Commissioned by Boston University’s Alea III, it was dedicated to his teacher and colleague, the late Earl Kim. This relatively short piece is reminiscent of the simple but slightly ominous German cabaret music of Kurt Weil, and it just as simply stops. Sur wrote, “Ad infinitum” over the last measure of the score, which contains no notation. (A recording of the works of Sur (including this piece), performed by Collage has just been released by Albany Records.)
The full sextet was in play for the first performance of Three Perambulations (2010), by James Ricci. The composer describes the first, “Immagine speculare” (Mirror image), as a “brisk walk through a house of mirrors at the Carnival.” It is full of cross rhythms against a constant tactus and calls for the bass clarinet throughout. Virtuosic piano writing was accomplished by Berman without ceremony, but to perfection, as was his performance throughout the evening. The second movement, “Passeggiata” (Walk) plays off the strings and winds (clarinet this time) against the piano and vibes, leading up to a loud climax, and then suddenly to a hushed final phrase. The “Passacaglia” is of course a Baroque form made up of variations over a ground bass. Here Ricci used the structure for his own purposes, presenting the “theme” as a chordal piano solo with the “bass” melody ringing out in the soprano, and building from there. Skillfully performed, there was nevertheless an overall feeling of angst.
For his Rilke Songs (2008), Peter Child chose seven poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and lyrically translated by Edward Snow in a bilingual edition (North Point Press) of 1997. All of them concerned “blooming,” (in German, “blühen”), creating not only a unity of imagery, but also an opportunity for the Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy to project her fat (intended as a compliment) but focused, warmly dramatic voice. Indeed, the very fatness meant that she could “cover” (i.e., never be in conflict with) any instrumental pitch with which a unison was prescribed, greatly adding to the warmth of the ensemble as a whole. Each song began with a brief instrumental introduction, in the Lieder tradition. The final (tonal) song, “Wilder Rosenbusch” (Wild rosebush), for mezzo-soprano and piano only, strongly reinforced this tradition, leaving the impression that Child had somehow morphed into Schubert for the moment. More warmth was introduced by the duos for cello and clarinet, while cascading simultaneous ripples from piano and vibes, with pedals depressed, were absolutely thrilling.
The first of Fred Lerdahl’s two pieces, for cello alone, There and Back Again (after Columbi’s ‘Chiacona’), was one of several written in 2010 for the 50th birthday of Finnish cellist Anssi Kartunen, with the requirement that all the composers base their surprise gift on this particular four-bar theme by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). In a sense it is a festive, insider’s musical joke — as Lerdahl wrote, “a journey through three and a half centuries and back” — all in four minutes. Joel Moerschel played it with a wicked straight face.
Lerdahl’s Time after Time (2000) is in two much longer movements (unnamed), and was commissioned by both Collage and the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society in New York. Both movements were composed in accordance with what Lehrdahl describes as his own formal creation, a spiral, “in which a simple, stable musical idea proliferates, becoming longer and more complex with each cycle” — thus a transformative process, difficult to comprehend on first hearing. The first movement runs fiercely up and down at fortissimo, a flurry of activity. The second is quieter, and develops over a constant tick-tock tactus established in the piano, ending in a rich, soft coda with a lovely cadence. Once again the performance was breathtaking in the hands of these particular players. There were moments of sounding square, however, perhaps deriving from Hoose’s propensity to beat time forcefully.
The final work, The Seven Ages (2009), by John Harbison, is a song cycle that takes its title from the first poem in Louise Glück’s ninth book of poetry published under the same title by Ecco Press in 2001. It is also the title of the first in Harbison’s set, followed by “The Balcony,” “Decade,” “Aubade,” “Summer Night,” and “Fable.” Here again Murrihy spun her magical web around these dour texts of lost desire and passion, yet with rich, vivid imagery that yielded to Murrihy’s rich voice, her fine diction and her own dramatic passion. Harbison of course was more than partly responsible, with eloquent musical lines drawn out, a refined ear for instrumental color, and, according to his notes, total immersion in the poetry while composing. There was no beating the way to the door after this emotional bath. It took a while to get the coat on.
Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.