With a whole handful of new music groups on the Boston scene that are young, edgy, and hip (or as hip as conservatory-trained musicians can be), it’s easy to forget that the performance of new music has been going on for, well, as long as music has been written. The title of Collage New Music’s Halloween concert on Monday evening, October 31, “Time and Motion,” emphasized the group’s pride in a longstanding tradition of premieres and contemporary classics. Though director and conductor David Hoose began his pre-concert welcome with a joking reference to the group as “the new music ensemble for old people,” it was apparent that Collage, presenting its 40th season, feels no need to grab at audience members with promises of edge-of-your-seat weirdness. It was a shame that Longy’s Pickman Hall was not better populated, because the group offered a program of well-played and satisfying music. If nothing reached the level of headline-breaking excitement, still each piece offered food for the mind and for the ear. The players — members of the BSO and practically every other established musical organization in the city — are clearly committed to expanding the canon into the latter part of the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the summation of the group’s performance repertoire to date; appearing in very small print in the last 10 pages of the program booklet, it is a Who’s-Who of living and recently deceased composers.
Talk at intermission and the post-concert reception (the décor of which featured “Collage New Music” jack-o-lanterns) proved that opinions regarding the relative quality of the four pieces were varied — good for the causes of thought and debate. The first half of the concert featured three relatively short, single-movement works, opening with Peter Lieberson’s Raising the Gaze. (Each piece was attached to a descriptive title demystified to some degree in the program notes.) The Lieberson began both energetically and rather messily, with an initial flurry of notes dominated, whether through intention or mere force of physics, by the piccolo and piano. The sharpness of toms (Craig McNutt presided over the modest percussion battery throughout) was a welcome underlay and provided structure, both to the sometimes miasmic texture and to the horizontal progression of the music. Later on the texture thinned, allowing the interweaving lines of the strings (Catherine French on violin, Anne Black on viola, and Joel Moerschel on cello) to come through. Standout among the various duets and solos was French’s spirited and occasionally jazzy violin solo.
Julie Rohwein’s notes for her piece, Borne on the Wind, consisted of a quaintly poetic description of a Western scene (her bio led to the conjecture that it was based on memories from her youth in California and New Mexico). The piece had a corresponding stream-of-consciousness flavor, contemplative and unhurried, with unexpected percussive touches of tambourine and fish-scale wind chimes. To balance the suspended, in-the-moment quality of memory with overall cohesion is a fine line; I grew a bit restless in the middle as the music gently drifted to a halt, with sizeable gaps surrounding single fragments. In terms of the interweaving sounds themselves, the richness of French’s tone and execution, like an effective memory, was especially enjoyable and struck the perfect balance between poignant and incisive.
Ending the first half was Richard Festinger’s The Laws of Motion, for a more concise ensemble of flute, clarinet, viola, cello, and piano. Again the title was an appropriate indicator of what to expect: the piece began with a taut alternation of suspension and fast rhythmic layering. Festinger described the piece as centered on the cello, but not in a concerto fashion; likewise, cellist Moerschel was a focused but reserved presence throughout. His flourishes thrown back and forth with pianist Christopher Oldfather, while not bombastically executed, were rendered compelling through the players’ intentness and well-matched articulation. As in the Rohwein, sections of more activity were connected by sustained notes; whereas Rohwein’s suspensions tended to wander off, Festinger managed to imbue his with tension and direction. A few such tightrope-quality notes were executed by clarinetist Robert Annis, who displayed a striking range of delicate-to-forceful sound colors. Annis also shone in sections of tightly interlocking perpetual motion with flutist Christopher Krueger. On the string side of the stage, violist Black was not always a consistent presence, occasionally losing her tone in the ensemble during melodic lines; she did, however, offered some penetrating high notes that blended effectively with Krueger’s tones opposite. Some of the finest moments of the piece were saved for the coda, in which Moerschel executed a line of impressively lyrical and pristine harmonics to flute accompaniment.
The entire ensemble returned to the stage after intermission for Gerald Levinson’s multi-movement Time and the Bell…. Suitably for a piece of this length, Levinson employed a wide variety of character and texture, whose contrasts and slow build-ups lent the work a certain emotional investment lacking in the shorter pieces. The first movement, “Mosaic,” presented the strings and woodwinds antiphonally, then joined to counter the entrance of the piano. The movement then segued into what Levinson described as a “rapt meditative (and gamelan-like) state” consisting of a duet between cello and English horn (movingly played by Jennifer Slowik) over ethereal ostinatos in the piano and percussion. I appreciate beautifully played lyricism in new music; however, I could not shake a slight feeling saccharine orientalism, the easy equation of gamelan harmonies with meditation, only partly mitigated by unexpected harmonization at melodic peaks.
The second movement, “Ostinato,” began with a groove in temple blocks and piano, which, through clever use of successive rhythmic layering, always managed to come out of alignment just as the music seemed about to settle into a consistent pattern. The reverberations of the un-dampened piano in the pauses further contributed to the engagingly off-kilter atmosphere. The third movement, “Evening,” described as “a piece of tone painting,” was quite successful in its mission, though the interjections of the flute (as a raucous bird, perhaps?) seemed out of place amid the muted, dusky sonorities of the rest of the ensemble. The question of authenticity in “Ragamalika,” ostensibly based on Indian ragas (oddly but pleasantly mixed with distinctly bluesy “ragas”), fortunately took a back seat to the zealous performance of pianist Oldfather, who tore into his concerto-like part with aplomb and even some delightedly goblin-like facial expressions at the tops of runs.
The fifth movement, “Night,” happily brought back Slowik’s English horn for another solo. She sound she achieved took on a larger-than-life quality which allowed her to maintain a presence through the busy accompaniment, dense string harmonies, and countermelodies from flute and bass clarinet. The last movement, “Incantation,” began with a declamatory statement from the piano, followed by a return of the so-called gamelan duet in bass flute and clarinet, this time made more interesting by the interweaving of other melodic fragments. The piece ended with a feeling of togetherness, rendered particularly nicely in French’s and Black’s final duet. Composer Levinson is plainly knowledgeable in a wide variety of subjects, from Balinese music to poetry (the title of his work refers to T.S. Eliot); while I was not completely convinced that all of his influences manifested themselves in the fullness of their ability and complexity, the piece nevertheless demonstrated an easy ability to charm and touch the listener, proven by the enthusiastic response of the audience at its conclusion.
Zoe Kemmerling, a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory, is a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.