in: Reviews

January 11, 2016

Collage of Four Works by Four Composers

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Dominic Labelle (Lino Alverez photo)

Dominic Labelle (Lino Alverez photo)

David Hoose conducted three recent compositions for chamber ensemble by Talia Amar, David Rakowski, and Chaya Czernowin; soprano Dominique Labelle joined in for the finale by Yehudi Wyner, in Collage New Music’s presentation on Sunday night in Edward Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge.

Collage has a long history of presenting new works by local musicians, and the four composers, each with connections to the Boston area, were all in attendance. The audience, which nearly filled the hall, included many luminaries of the local new-music scene.

A pre-concert conversation between conductor Hoose and the four composers yielded little beyond what was included in the program booklet (some of which is online on Collage’s blog). I did learn, however, that I should avoid the mistake of a previous commentator who, in Wyner’s words, accused the composer of being “eclectic.” The term is an easy choice for describing music that is never, as far as I know, twelve-tone, serial, aleatoric, minimalist, or any of various other things that characterize many compositions of the last five or six decades. Indeed, none of the evening’s offerings falls easily into pre-made categories, reflecting the group’s and the composers’ avoidance of the obvious and the easy.

Even David Rakowski’s “Stolen Moments,” a substantial 2008 composition which here received its area premiere, was not as straightforwardly “jazzy” as one might have expected from the initial conversation or the program notes. Christopher Oldfather gave a crisp, confident performance of the challenging piano solos in the first and last of the piece’s four movements. Echoes of stride pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, acknowledged by the composer, were clear enough in a couple of passages in the first movement, as were the bebop influences in some of the single-note riffs of the last. But as the piece developed I began to wonder whether the “jazz elements” that make for ready conversation were not red herrings in music whose real substance lies elsewhere—perhaps in the masterfully paced growth of each movement out of what seem at first to be just a few good-natured or quirky opening ideas.

This seemed especially clear in the two inner movements, where the nine other instrumentalists take the lead. The slow second movement, which included some expressive playing by the woodwinds (sometimes in octaves), built to a melodic horn solo accompanied by dark piano chords and quiet tremolos in the flute—one of many beautifully conceived sonorities in the piece. Tango rhythms in the third movement, mentioned prominently in the discussion, in fact emerged only gradually and served mainly as discreet accompaniment to sometimes ornate woodwind lines, again often in hard-to-tune unisons or octaves. (These made me think of the music for concert band which the composer, now at Brandeis University, mentioned as among his first inspirations while growing up in Vermont.)

The opening work on the program, which was receiving its first performance, was a commission from the Israeli-born Talia Amar. A doctoral student at Brandeis, she clearly is already a master composer (and an accomplished concert pianist). She described her “Reminiscence,” for six players, as a development of an “unknown seed” which is never actually sounded in the piece. I was unable to hear this concept, reminiscent of the idea underlying Elgar’s Enigma Variations, in the music. But the piece was beautifully crafted, its roughly ten minutes twice tracing an arc from relatively lively to quiet, sustained music, ending unexpectedly but very effectively with one of the latter passages.

The players executed this with exquisite attention to the often subtle sonorities, which have something in common not only with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (mentioned in the pre-concert talk) but also with the Marteau sans maître by Boulez—whose recent death occasioned appreciative comments from all four composers. Amar, who is Collage’s 2015–2016 Fellow, has a fine ear for sound as well as sure compositional technique, and I look forward to hearing more of her music.

From another planet, it seemed, came “Lovesong” by Chaya Czernowin, also from Israel and now teaching at Harvard. The 2010 work, also receiving its local premiere, reflects the composer’s view that any sound can be music. It is for eight players who frequently employ so-called extended techniques to produce unconventional sonorities. This of course has been going on for a long time; one thinks, for example, of music from the 1960s by George Crumb. I sense, however, that Czernowin aims at something more personal, less mythic. Certainly her music has a completely different sound, although it is not easily characterized. This piece makes much use of chattering and chirping sounds from the violin, viola, and cello (produced by quick, light bow strokes over the bridge), as well as intentionally “ugly” timbres as the bow is drawn more harshly over the strings. In moments such as the latter, which eschew any vibrato that might soften or humanize the sound, one might well understand that the composer set out to express something that is not just a “sweet and beautiful lovesong,” as she put it.

Still, I must confess that, while enjoying many of the individual moments, I am baffled as to how they join into a whole, or what the constantly inventive sound has to do with the “falling in love” which the composer writes is the subject of the piece. I don’t mean that as a criticism. These things might become clearer after repeated hearings. Even to an uncomprehending listener, however, the work’s dramatic character—the composer described it as “like a little opera that got sucked into a bottle” (like a ship)—is self-evident in the theatricality of many gestures.

The program’s title, “Voices of Now and Tomorrow,” was most literally realized in the final work, Wyner’s The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women. Composed in 1999 for performance by soprano Labelle, the work is a song cycle on ten poems by and about women that were compiled (and in part translated) by the Polish writer Czes»aw Mi»osz. Although the composer facetiously referred to his “mistake” in writing it for a large ensemble of ten players, the music eminently succeeds in enveloping the singer in sounds “worthy of her talent.” Labelle was seemingly flawless in conveying the rapidly shifting moods of the ten poems. These range from a morning song by the sixth-century Chinese emperor Ch’ien-wen (Jianwen) through the teasingly erotic “Second Madrigal” by Anna Swir (from which the composition as a whole takes its title), ending with several contemplations of age and decline.

Yehudi Wyner (file photo)

Yehudi Wyner (file photo)

The composer treats these themes with humor and compassion. I was touched by the sudden turn to darkness in the sixth song, “Thank you, my fate,” also by Anna Swir (Ðwirszczy½ska). This ends quietly, with just a whisp of voice accompanied by two violins, on the ironic line “how beautiful my life.” That sets up the following “Cosmetics Do No Good,” perhaps the most complex of the ten songs, on words by the Indian medieval poet Vidyapati. A disjointed, almost funny, introduction, deftly played by staccato woodwinds and pizzicato strings, leads to sad reminiscences of the past. These are expressed beautifully in a tiny detail, a perfectly composed and sung setting of the difficult word “coquettishness.” This in turn is set aside when “the God of Passion has his will of me,” underlined by stark string chords in what might have been the dramatic high point of the evening.

The penultimate song, Li Ch’ing-Chao’s “Hopelessness,” expresses its exhaustion in lovely, quiet ostinatos cycling over and over in the muted horn and muted strings. But the cycle ends in a setting of May Swenson’s “Question” whose virtuosically played instrumental introduction and epilog seemed to belie the singer’s plaintively repeated “how will I hide?”

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.

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