in: Reviews

October 7, 2012

Collage’s Successful Programmatic Alchemy

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Collage New Music, under Music Director David Hoose, “ …has gained a reputation for programming compelling new [compositional] works in illuminating juxtaposition with contemporary classics and unjustly neglected older works,” in his words.  Hoose’s professed intention for this concert on Sept. 30th at Pickman Hall of Longy School of Music of Bard College was to choose pieces that would relate “antagonistically”, hopefully to invoke a kind of programmatic ‘alchemy.’ Chemistry was largely achieved not only through its juxtaposition of compositional styles but through its order of presentation, in which Elliot Carter’s modern classic Triple Duo served as a meaty and substantial segue to Eric Nathan’s artfully crafted Boston premiere of Walls of Light, with the second half presenting Corey Dargel, also in a compositional Boston premiere, singing his own lyrics and music in a seasonally appropriate song-cycle Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, exploring the delusional musings of hypochondria. The first piece communicated a quality of painting with sound, while the second was boisterously conversational, ending with a sense of simply delivered yet playfully whimsical experimentalism.

Economic pragmatism also played a role in the choosing of this program: all three pieces shared a common instrumentation akin to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, utilizing violin played by Catherine French, cello by Jennifer Lucht, flute (alternating, piccolo) by Christopher Krueger, clarinet and bass clarinet by Robert Annis, Christopher Oldfather on the piano — with the addition of Craig McNutt performing percussion. It is easy to take for granted the sophisticated level of musicianship plentifully available in the area of Boston, but doing justice to these pieces as this collaboration of players did is no small feat. For two acclaimed but relatively young composers, one could not have asked for a more skillfully executed presentation of their work.

What is lingeringly memorable about Eric Nathan’s Wall’s of Light is its sense of architecture, in which one is aurally transported over a visual arch of sonorous textures that are proportionately pleasing, gently supporting its listener with an experience of fine craftsmanship. Nathan describes his composition as “…inspired by different kinds of light – flickering, fluttering, dancing, glowing, refracting, and gradually shifting…” In the first movement, this is characterized by fluttering textures of sound that are butterfly-like in movement throughout the woodwinds and piano, playing with harmonies to end finally on a solitary unison note. The second movement, Nathan explains in his notes, “…relates directly to Sean Scully’s series of paintings, which abstractly depict light as it shines on ancient Mexican stone walls… divid[ing] the canvasses into horizontal and vertical rectangles of different colors.” Nathan characterizes this more “jagged” jumping between colors, …” by an opening of marimba and plucking of strings to create a quality of plunking pin balls. The final movement, designed to depict the shifting light of sunset, opens with a minor sixth interval between woodwinds and strings, shifting in texture, until a lyrical violin soars into the upper stratosphere – glasslike, in which the final disappearance of the sun is marked by a minor second between violin and flute.

Elliott Carter, a living centenarian with a prolific body of work, is notably standard and therefore now ‘classic’ fare among musicians specializing in “new music.” Triple Duo, created in 1982, which Hoose writes, “stands at the heart of any contemporary ensemble’s musical diet,” can still be a challenge 30 years later for audiences to ‘digest.’ To facilitate better the accessibility of this “masterpiece,” Hoose, with the aid of each player, very unpretentiously and succinctly gave a delightfully comprehensible introduction and demonstration that talked the audience through the piece’s structure. He explained how each duo is formally introduced at the beginning of the piece with their respective, characteristic vertical intervals, followed by all of them chattering at once as if at a cocktail party, eavesdropping on each other’s conversations and then playfully interacting with each other — cutting in, interrupting, interweaving, shifting back and forth between tempos and time signatures. By the end of the lecture, one had a shot at fully appreciating all these playful complexities which were so masterfully performed by this brilliant ensemble.

Composed in the tradition of an acoustic song-cycle, affectionately described as “Pierrot plus percussion,” Corey Dargel’s Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, as described in the program notes, “[E]xplore hypochondria in a variety of manifestations: paranoia about mortality, assumptions about the real cause of acne, and dysfunctional doctor-patient relationships – a crush-driven patient who keeps going to a doctor in the hopes that he will be paid attention to in a more than medical way.” Compositionally, it utilizes a pop style and seemingly Philip Glass-like repetitive tonality, with Kate Bush-like rhythmic eclecticism that beguiles the listener into accessibility finessing its technical sophistication.

When speaking, Dargel has a gentle yet concentrated stillness and compelling eloquence of articulation and verbal expression. And as a singer, he successfully achieves his intention of a “clear, crisp” delivery that isn’t emotionally manipulative, allowing for the compositional freedom to be more “experimental” with “prosody.” But with amplification, there is still the challenge of balance, which was not completely satisfying in this venue; but subtler affects were still audible. Dargel is willing to use tight throat and high larynx in one place to express a dramatic affect if he perceives it as appropriate, while being perfectly capable of executing a less strained quality elsewhere.

The overall effect of Dargel’s composition and performance has a playfully innovative, intellectual sophistication to it, and it is that playfulness without pretense, which Tommasini of The New York Times described as “impish,” that makes his intellectualism and sense of experimentalism refreshing. Despite his conservative use of tonality, his compositional and literary style is somewhat anathema to Romanticism, while communicating an inner poise that is powerfully self-possessed. But in his quest for pure delivery, there is a potential danger of confusing emotionalism with emotional commitment. Although it is laudable for the artist to step back from any personal empathy with the subject matter to remove all hint of manipulating the audience as to what to feel, that emotional distance without a core element of passion can communicate as flat.

Art song was incubated and born in a culture of elocution and print media, where music performance was crafted at home by one’s own consistent effort, and poetry was distributed through journals and volumes, often read aloud after dinner by the hearth. Without amplification in the square or church pulpit, basic techniques for public speaking were taught in school. And although Dargel rightfully argues that with amplification something is gained, something can also be lost that can still be heard in the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland – and Janis Joplin: a connection of breath that is not so much tied to bel canto, but to theater, that generates a core of emotional commitment to the text.

These kinds of elocution techniques, if carefully done, can be compatible with electronic amplification. It is a question of whether, as a stylistic choice, a potentially more dramatic delivery through connection with the breath is compatible with Dargel’s persona. The conclusion that it is not is certainly a valid choice. But if the choice is not so much based on stylistic preference, but out of fear of emotionalism, this is an invitation to take a passionate leap.

Janine Wanée holds a Bachelor’s degree in Voice from USC and Master’s degree in voice from Boston University. She is currently a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.

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