Collage’s brought together its full ensemble for a season opener yesterday at Pickman Hall that included two premieres and an extensive tribute to Gunther Schuller, who died last summer just short of age 90. His NEC colleague John Heiss, noting some 16 events just in November that honor Schuller with one or more performances, was on stage with composers Yehudi Wyner and Michael Gandolfi, and director David Hoose, at a pre-concert talk that included some fine reminiscences from audience members as well.
A new Collage commission, Towards Equilibrium by Paul Brust, began with a big splash of frantically agitated ff sound that soon abruptly halted to an ultra-slow ppp, with long held notes and what seemed to be whistling; the fast fortissimo and the slow pianissimo passages alternated thereafter but were shorter, as though everything were settling towards an equilibrium in moderate tempo and dynamic. There were some nice moments with bass flute (played by Christopher Krueger, who needless to say also packed alto, soprano, and piccolo for the evening) plucked strings inside the piano, penetrating tones on the vibraphone played with a bow, a melody in octaves with violin and clarinet, piano-flute-clarinet-vibraphone again in octaves, and a nice pairing of pizzicato cello with marimba. Sometimes these were doublings, at other times they were actual duets.
Some of the same exotic sounds marked Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s Páramo, which featured some of the same percussion plus a cabaça, a ratchet, a small (maybe 16 inches) elevated tamtam, and bamboo windchimes. This piece also began with a big explosion of sound, and then moved into multiple metric layers, seemingly in simultaneous different tempi but regulated by a steady pulse (the program notes mentions that “the piece frenziedly ticks, tolls, and even cuckoos, like a deranged musical clock”), and the result was not always kept together. (I wondered whether David Hoose could have got more precise results in this metrically dizzying piece had he used a stick.) The inspiration is supposed to be from a novel by Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo, but the word also means “high plateau” or “desert wasteland.” I was reminded in part of music by the composer’s fellow Mexican, Silvestre Revueltas.
Even more percussion instruments, along with founding director Frank Epstein joining Craig McNutt as second percussionist, were added to the stage for the second premiere on the program, by Gunther Schuller himself: Singing Poems, six songs and an interlude, on widely disparate, colorful texts. Mary Mackenzie, soprano, sang with complete command and good imagination (I reported on her excellent Pierrot Lunaire performances in Maine two years ago). These were all short but very intense songs, often high-registered and chiefly with complexly-textured accompaniments. The angriest of these was the first one, “Deep Rapture” (text by St. John of the Cross “after an ecstasy of profound contemplation”; the translation from the Spanish seemed decidedly twentieth-century). A thinner texture supported the second song, “O Mistress mine” from Twelfth Night, using the first verse only; a light background of block chords for flute, violin and cello contrasted with a marimba melody, and there was an appropriate gliss at “That can sing both high and low.” Then came Emily Dickinson’s “Musicians wrestle everywhere,” a text previously set by Elliott Carter and probably many others, and it reminds one of a psalm “for the chief musician.” The wrestling was agitated enough, but settled down now and then into a steady chirping beat, and one could enjoy the thinner layers punctuated by percussion (plucked piano, triangle, steel wind chimes). At the last words of text, “– shall ascertain!” there was a warm dominant-sounding sonority such as Ravel wrote in abundance, resonantly in the piano. The fourth song, “Time does not bring relief,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, began with a fortissimo piccolo shriek, and then there was more percussion, even a flexatone (“The old snows melt from every mountain-side” – Gunther must have written this song after last winter was trying to disappear). I want to check the score, because at “and my old thoughts abide” I’m almost certain that I heard the same Ravel chord that ended the previous song. This one was a different kind of tolling time, a knell from the work we had heard a few minutes earlier; where Páramo had a tick-tock beat, the end of this song was measured in tubular bells. The Interlude that followed, if I understood it correctly, included a succession of chords for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, like the one in Part III of Pierrot Lunaire. A stanza from Gertrude Stein’s “Meditation” measured a staccato beat in the fifth song: “Why am I if I am uncertain…” with jerky hesitation almost throughout; the beginning, with marimba, vibraphone, antique cymbals, and bass drum gave a rumbling contrast. The pointillistic treatment continued into the final very brief song,”Me up at does” (e. e. cummings), with ratchet, snare drum, and squeaks with piccolo and violin: “…a poisoned mouse / still who alive / is asking What …”, with a tamtam note at the end. If one regrets that Gunther Schuller didn’t hear this riveting performance of one of his last works, one is consoled that he nevertheless knew exactly how it would sound. Collage will certainly be bringing Singing Poems back for more performances; they should be recorded, too.
After the intermission we heard Rand Steiger’s Elliott’s Instruments, composed 2010. This thirteen-minute work expressed the composer’s fascination with Elliott Carter’s music, and this partly explained the abundance of expressive soloistic writing for Joel Moerschel’s cello; much of the dialogue included piano and violin as well, the piano often in extreme registers. As the piece moved on, there were a multitude of trills and tremoli, and fourths and fifths in the piano, gradually incorporating a toccata-like texture in which could be perceived the only rapidly-repeating notes of the entire evening. Catherine French, veteran violinist, was outstanding in deft management of very high-register notes.
Gunther Schuller’s Bouquet for Collage, another commission dating back to 1988, concluded the program. The composer’s notes describe its eleven short vignettes as “a kind of mini-concerto for chamber ensemble” that provide displays for each of the instruments in Collage’s nuclear family – plus an introduction and coda, with a bonus of two appearances for percussion in honor of Frank Epstein, founding director. (Frank was present to enjoy the performance but Craig McNutt performed, and splendidly at that.) The titles of the movements reveal their essentials. The Introduction was a big ff frenzy of attention; the “Mellow Cello” was in a mellow F minor, which continued into the flute’s “Valse Noble” (one remembered Schoenberg’s Valse de Chopin), and the waltz rhythm itself was falt partway into “Frolicking Fiddle.” In “With Mallets Aforethought” there were expressive dialogues between piano, marimba, and vibraphone; in “Darkly Somber” I heard Robert Annis’s bass clarinet go all the way down to C, and then the opposite extreme was reached in “Piccsyish” with fast staccatos and wild piano scales offsetting the piccolo screeches. Some of the nicest melodic writing of the evening wove through “Romanza Pastorale,” followed by “Eine kleine Ragtimemusik” with plenty of piano (Christopher Oldfather deserved overtime pay for his hard-working brave sound throughout), culminating in “The Battle,” which included a sideways burst on the celesta.
David Hoose conducted expertly with equal precision and expression. It was interesting to note that the spirit of Pierrot Lunaire hovered over so much of the music we heard, and not just because of the essential ensemble. Maybe Schoenberg would have been reassured about how far music has come since 1912; certainly he would have been reassured by the disciple he found in Gunther Schuller. Some who were disciples of both were surely present to hear the evolution of our music today.