The celebration “60 Years of the Fromm Foundation” began Friday night with the first of two free concerts and an exhibit at Harvard’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall. Sound Icon, a Boston-based ensemble committed to performing works that have redefined our understanding of music, performed for the anniversary of the Fromm Contemporary Music Foundation at Harvard University.
Of the four composers on the program, Lim, Berio, Kirchner, and Maderna, it would have to be Berio who most met Sound Icon’s redefining criterion. His “Circles” was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation and dedicated to Olga Koussevitzky. Composed in 1960 and premiered at Tanglewood by Cathy Berberian, Berio’s wife at that time, “Circles” deconstructed the poems of e.e. cummings, surrounding them with the plosives of two percussionists and a harpist. A student at Tanglewood that year, I heard the theatrically charged performance and can never forget Berberian clutching wood chimes in a crazed fashion at the second of three stage positions that formed a circle.
Soprano Jennifer Ashe pinpointed the serially conceived tones in a cooler delivery, more in keeping with today’s expectations and in contrast to Berberian’s hot and sensual dramatics of yesteryear. Ashe, too, thought more subtlety and purely about the various vowel and consonant exaggerations of Berio’s musical re-creation of words. While Ashe’s clear-throated voice appealed and her grasp of the score’s extended vocal techniques showed great integrity, the thrilling and outwardly dramatic were too played down, and the words themselves, so central to the work, were too often too hard to make out. Nick Tolle and Mike Williams, with good-sized circles of percussion instruments, along with harpist Franziska Huhn rocketed “Circles” into a Berio-Berberian sphere of up and down surges of galactic radiance.
Having studied with Leon Kirchner about the time he wrote his Concerto for Violin, Cello, and 10 Winds and Percussion from 1960, I can recall how students felt he was so out of step with all that was going on then. A conversation about Boulez and serialism in the hallway just after one of his classes in analysis, which he overheard, prompted an annoyed “Why don’t you all get a boat to Paris?” Later, Kirchner would publish “A Boo for the Boos of Boulez” in the New York Times.
But if Kirchner’s “backward looking” Concerto seemed out of place on this concert, it held the most interest. Unlike the “in-the-nowness” of the other three pieces, its forthrightness, its uninterrupted continuum, its momentum, its striving through thrust upon thrust, its Kirchnerian voice demanded my attention and meant something on the human plane. Its overall craft and contrapuntal dexterity amazed, even through the spontaneity his writing exudes over 18 minutes.
Gabriella Diaz, violin, and Robert Mayes, cello, expressed much of the Concerto’s bittersweet sentiment and ever striving focus. Both handled the virtuoso side of the writing with apparent ease. Sound Icon’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Jeffrey Means, allowed too much volume from the ten winds and percussion. The ensemble did not completely understand Kirchner’s big structural beats and climactic points.
“Shimmer Songs” (2006) by Liza Lim, the young Australian composer of Chinese parentage, explores a texture inspired by the painting techniques of the Aboriginal Yolngu people. The shimmering effect is understood as a direct manifestation of ancestral power. Giardino Religioso (1972) by Bruno Maderna was originally called “Fromm’s Garden” since it drew inspiration from Paul Fromm’s many services to music. Both Lim’s program opener, and Maderna’s closer worked in ways with time, textures, and instruments that suggested being on the cusp of electronic composition, and each came to somewhat similar outcomes.
One could certainly conclude from the evening’s program and performance that this celebration served as an homage befitting Paul Fromm.
Elliott Carter, Lee Hyla, a world premiere of Karola Obermüller, and Gunther Schuller are on the bill for the Saturday evening concert that begins at 8 pm.