in: Reviews

January 27, 2014

Collage Marries Beauty and Ruckus

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“A Beautiful Ruckus” seemed appropriate as a title for the concert presented by Collage New Music on Sunday at Longy School of Music of Bard College.  In works by David Lang, Kati Agócs, James Primosch, and Charles Fussell, the musicians of Collage provided much beauty, an occasional ruckus, and more often than not, a marriage of the two.

The sparkling eighth notes of the glockenspiel in David Lang’s “these broken wings” were punctuated by augmented variations of the same melody in the piccolo, clarinet, and piano, creating a frenetic network of canonic angularity. It is a captivating opening gambit, pulling the listener into the three-movement work, which, according to the composer, “concentrates[s] on three different physical and mental challenges.” It is a fine art to pull off these turbulent rhythmic complexities with sincerity, and the ensemble found their groove, although initially the rhythms seemed more forced than organic. Taking Lang’s direction to play “lyrical and hard” very much to heart, the ensemble produced a wonderfully resonant sound that kept the collective timbre from becoming too tintinnabulatory. Music director David Hoose, who moderated a pre-concert discussion, quipped that the music was “terrifying for the players—we hope not for you [the audience].” His comment captured the edge-of-your-seat vivacity and intensity of the first movement, where patterns interlock at breakneck speed and can leave the listener almost breathless.

While Hoose claimed that he “didn’t understand” the second movement “at all,” this was clearly figurative–something not lost (we hope) on the large audience largely comprised of composers, musicians and new music lovers. The vibraphone provides a mesmerizing, almost chant-like anchor for this middle movement, which asks for the performers to drop metal objects when they are not playing. The ensemble’s comprehension of the sonic contradiction was beautifully displayed with their artful integration of what might have been an unwelcome sound. Especially noteworthy was the ensemble playing of Catherine French (violin), Joel Moerschel (cello), Amy Advocat (bass clarinet), and Christopher Oldfather (piano), whose descending melodies were tender and sensitive. The re-entry of the vibraphone (Craig McNutt) and flute (Christopher Kreuger) was breathtaking, as the movement slowly edged toward the final cadence, accentuated with a tutti drop of the metal chains. The low registers of the movement were a lovely contrast to the dazzling pitches of the first, and the melancholy provided a reflective pathos that never succumbed to brooding. The final part launched into a jazzy rhythmic drive, reminiscent of a 1980s Eurhythmics dance hit. At times the texture seemed a bit muddied in the performers’ attempts to drive the rhythm forward, but the spirit was exuberant, particularly obvious in Oldfather’s piano playing. Amy Advocat’s buoyancy in the clarinet balanced the potentially deadening weight of the kickdrum, and the duet between French and Moerschel was a rewarding moment, particularly since their playing was often lost in the denser textural moments.

Kati Agócs’s Crystallography, which received its U.S. premiere in this performance, sets a collection of excerpted texts from Canadian poet Christian Bök’s 1994 book of the same name. Scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (originally commissioned by Canada’s Standing Wave ensemble in Vancouver), the work offers a highly structured celebration of alliteration and assonance. Mezzo-soprano Brenna Wells’s cantillations negotiated sections of misterioso chanting, thematic folksong, and dramatic exclamation—all artfully employed by Agócs. The work is emotionally and thematically palindromic, with the “Amethyst”, “Ruby” and “Topaz” sections leading up the mountain toward the apotheosis in the exact middle of the “Emerald” text. The texture thins out through the final three sections: “Jade” “Opal” and “Sapphire”—the last of which highlighted Wells’s gifts as an early music singer when the texture reduces to a modal chant accompanied only by drums.

The second half of the program featured the Boston premiere of James Primosch’s solo piano work, Pure Contraptions, Absolute Gift. A commission from 13 different pianists, including Christopher Oldfather, the work is, as the composer explains,  a reflective suite on “the musical realm”. The first piece in the set, “Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart” takes its title from Stephen Crane’s poem “In the desert,”and the piece captured bittersweet ambivalence in the gentle dissonances of the low registers, the energetic scrambling motives of the left hand, and the jarring clusters, all sensitively conveyed by Oldfather. In the second piece, “A Gracious Dance,” Oldfather’s playing truly shone in its neo-classical grace and cantabile quality. The aptly-titled “Gigue-Scherzo” made a fine centerpiece for the suite as the piece seemed to capitalize upon the jokester quality of scherzos, peppering the gigue with fits of stops and starts. The somnambulant bass line of “Nocturnal Obsessions” showcased Oldfather’s marvelous evenness of tone and was a lovely respite from the high-flying energy of the previous movement. The final movement, “Contraption,” opened with Broadway musical panache before settling into a cakewalk (at least in spirit). Oldfather articulated the jazzy and pianistic angularity of the work, which according to Primosch, seeks to capture the “tactile experience of the pianist.”

Charles Fussell’s Pilgrim Voyage, commissioned for Collage by the Harvard Musical Association in 2010, might have been better placed earlier in the program, as the eight-movement voyage is a half-program unto itself. It does have some merit as a finale, however, in that it exploits the many gifts of the individual performers. Horn player Jason Snider joined the ensemble, and his stunning versatility was on display in his timbral blend with the violin in the second movement, “first morning…unalloyed joy” and in the engaging solo of the “Night Scenes” fourth movement. Amy Advocat’s lyricism was well matched to Joel Moerschel’s cello playing in the elegiac opening movement, “Journey to the Land of the Dead”. The third movement, “Ceremony One,” likewise highlighted an expressive wind duet between Advocat and Kreuger, as well as Moerschel’s exquisite tone color. The “beklemmt” quality (a la Beethoven) of “Night Scenes” was particularly evocative, leading toward a narrative violin melody–beautifully rendered by Catherine French–interspersed with more frenzied passages. Also notable were the softer moments—Oldfather’s pianissimos and McNutt’s dulcet tones on the marimba. There was an understated power to the ensemble’s playing in the quieter sections.

The only moderate disappointment of the evening was the pre-concert conversation between Hoose, Agócs, and Primosch. I find that these “conversations” often fall flat—with statements about music that simply parrot the program notes and/or silly and glib anecdotes that lend little to an appreciation of the music or the composers. I offer this as a general statement regarding “conversations”—as opposed to “pre-concert talks/lectures”—and not isolated to Collage’s offering. Primosch, however, did provide some elegantly expressed thoughts about the influence of his teachers: George Crumb, Richard Wernick, Mario Davidovsky, and John Harbison. Despite the less-than-illuminating pre-concert conversation, the concert itself was a wonderfully varied gallery of energy and repose, fluorescents and pastels, joy and melancholy—reflective of the dynamism of human experience—a “beautiful ruckus” if ever there were one.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculties of Longy School of Music of Bard College and Boston Conservatory. She is the current president of the New England chapter of the American Musicological Society.

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