Hearing five new or recent works from Collage New Music Sunday evening, three of them first Boston performances, kept listeners up-to-the-minute. Even as all the composers involved grappled with crafting personal statements, they should also have been happy as larks, given the utter devotion and precision David Hoose and his ensemble lavished at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music.
A five-minute duet for violin and piano by University of Michigan Professor of Composition Evan Chambers (b. 1963), conflates Belfast’s fire boxes labeled “Fire Hose Reel” with traditional Irish tunes, or reels. Thus, the composer’s piece, The Fire Hose Reel, an urgent, pyrotechnical display of “intense moto perpetuo.”
Catherine French, violin, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, held a near-crazed stance, zooming through older modalities that referenced real (excuse the pun) Irish tradition. Chambers’ takeoff was over the top, not just with regards to speed but also with some sort of not-so-pretty amplification. The Fire Hose Reel was meant, as so many pieces written over the past how many decades, to knock us out. It did not. Keeping an eye on French’s and Oldfather’s blazing technique was just reward.
Sextet: a wild garden—fásach is the title of one of one hundred works composed by Nicola LeFanu (b. 1947). Born in England, she was Professor of Music at the University of York for fourteen years. She was also a Harkness Fellow at Harvard University, where she studied with Earl Kim. Looking up “fasach” online, I learned it is an Irish root word meaning wilderness. Why not have put this in the program notes?
It is fun to report that laughter broke out before this Boston premiere with Hoose informing us that he needed to fix the lights so that musicians could see. Different sets of lights switched on and off twice leaving the entire hall dark—some light show.
LeFanu opened her freely evolving Sextet with only the piano sounding. Thereafter, instruments, mostly one-at-a-time, followed various paths sometimes snarled, other times floriated, simple bongo patterns often providing overall connectors to the often single-layered textures. A winding continuum suggested the naturalness of a wild garden. Could visuals tell us more about the composer’s intent, perhaps a video tour to glimpse what the composer sees?
Flashbacks by Mario Davidovsky occupied that place just before intermission for good reason. Davidovsky is Fanny P. Mason Professor emeritus at Harvard University and former MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia University. His “musical fantasy attempting to make an intelligible musical narrative out of an apparently chaotic landscape” illustrated what uncommon musicality is in his possession. His is a multi-layered work that intelligently plays on abstraction, elevating it to echelons that both impress and perplex—the latter being a plus. On first hearing, Flashbacks felt a bit long, its intrusions and eruptions versus plains of stasis and sustained passages finally fatigued.
Kyong Mee Choi (b. 1971) is Associate Professor of Music Composition at Roosevelt University in Chicago. A remembrance of the victims of the 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, her Tender Spirit I, a sextet, also calls for electro-acoustic interplay. In this Boston premiere, emotion-bent ensemble swells dominated the beginning of a sonic strangeness. Volleys of a hard—slapped string on the fingerboard and a deep bass note banged on the piano simulated gunshots. This score might also suggest visual accompaniment to help elucidate the loudness of the piece.
Light Dances by Stephen Jaffe (b. 1954), Mary and James H. Semans Professor Music at Duke University Professor, took the route of serious play. Here, whimsy flirts with jazz at every turn possible in this three-movement sextet. The serious side is his syncopated shooting stars streaming about in a classical kind of unfolding. Unabashed theft (Stravinsky said that was OK, just don’t get caught) of harmonic progressions, one or two reminding me of McCoy Tyner, actually made for fun. The jazz element was always the underpinning to surfaces Jaffe fashioned—and so he goes free on having made much of his “borrowings” become his own voice, one to be remembered. The Scott Joplin rhythmic patterns finally got in the way, though, so abundant were they.
Hoose and the Collage ensemble of French, Oldfather, Robert Annis, clarinet, Christopher Krueger, flute, Craig McNutt, percussionist, Joel Moerschei, cellist, cracked the shell of every one of the pieces on the program, enlivening each with a superlative performance, the envy of any composer writing today. Hoose’s dedication to the Collage continues on into its 25th year. It is all the more a concern to once again see so few in the hall for Hoose’s and Collage’s showing the ways of contemporaries. By contrast, my colleague Brian Schuth reported [here] on a young, full house for Sound Icon’s recent contemporary music event. What marketing savvy can Collage glean from its up-and-coming rival for this market?