in: Reviews

October 26, 2016

Bracing for Collage

by

Mary Mackenzie (file photo)

Mary Mackenzie (file photo)

“Bracing Voices,” Collage’s season opener at Longy last night bore a strange promotional name, since only the final item actually included a voice. The basic nuclei of old expert Collage hands were all present: Catherine French, violin; Joel Moerschel, cello; Christopher Krueger, flute; Robert Annis, clarinet; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Craig McNutt, percussion; and director David Hoose, conductor. To these were added Anne Black, viola, and Mary Mackenzie, soprano, who have performed with Collage before. The half-empty house showed enthusiasm, well deserved by the vivid playing of this veteran ensemble.

Nina C. Young, who currently works at the Columbia Computer Music Center, was on hand for the Boston-area premiere of a new piece, Rising Tide for seven players, an essay in tidal waves of strident sound. The structure alternated between big, bell-like chords supported by the piano and fixation on individual long-sustained pitches around which the instruments would hover and dodge with semitone clusters. One heard a busy beehive of string glissandi, bent woodwind pitches and warbles, exotic percussion (vibraphone bars and suspended cymbal played with a bow; glockenspiel played with cymbal brushes), and inside-the-piano techniques. A printed epigraph from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar about “a tide in the affairs of men” might have inspired political speculations: one could feel all the boats being lifted in this election season.

Arthur Berger (1912-2003), a member of the Cambridge-Boston musical scene for decades, and a beloved professor at Brandeis University for 27 years, wrote Collage III on commission from this ensemble in 1992, revising it two years later.  Its nine short movements showed a fine consistency of texture and sound, with pointillistic gestures of two or three notes relaying between different instruments in a counterpoint that seemed related to both Webern’s Symphony and Stravinsky’s Movements.  The piano dominated much of the texture throughout. The triplets in the “Grazioso” movement were graceful enough; the textures of “Amabile con moto” and “Poco vivace” moved from tentative to assertively elaborate with brittle staccati; the widely-spaced sound of flute and cello had a strange sound for a consonant fifth with several octaves in between. Two of the movements could be identified by the sudden appearance in the percussion section of a small seed-shaker no bigger than a matchbox, and yet the sound was penetrating and even scary. Despite the atonal conception, Collage III seems to pay more homage to the neoclassical Stravinsky than to post-Webern serialism.

Andrew Rindfleisch’s What Vibes! boasted jazzy, carnival-like expostulation with marimba (no vibes) and an especially explosive snare drum. The composer noted the “inside-out” C major that reappeared, blurred, and disappeared, with the piano most prominently projecting chords in alternating hands—C major in one hand, a black-key cluster in the other.  The solo clarinet began with high shrieks, and ended the work with a quasi da capo. In one frantic passage, piano, marimba, violin and cello pizzicati, and piccolo fell all over each other, then were suddenly cut off by an interrupting low D in the bass clarinet, in a comic gesture worthy of Spike Jones. I watched David Hoose beating a steady 4/4 throughout, occasionally varying with a fast 3/8.  Robert Annis got a special acknowledgment for his ecstatic high-register clarinet.

Hayg Boyadjian has written a series of Mis Tangos— “My tangos.” Following the intermission came the premiere of Mi Tango No. 2—Al Abstracto, written for Collage and in homage to Astor Piazzolla, a friend of Boyadjian when they both lived in Argentina. This boisterous assortment of chromatic scale segments, figurations, flourishes, and flams in loud and uniformly staccato bursts, was mostly led by the piano, with a lot of melodic lines in octaves.  The texture was rhythmic, with a good deal of coalescence, of coming-together of patterns, but nowhere could I make out even a faint resemblance of tango. That is probably what is meant by “abstracto.”  The harmonic idiom felt simultaneously pungent and sensuous.

William Kraft, 93-year-old percussionist, conductor, and elder-statesman composer honored us with his attendance, and in the pre-concert discussion shared fine stories about his career. I asked him about the recording of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître in which he and Dorothy Remsen had played percussion, and that was still a sensation shortly after it first appeared in 1959 when I was a student at Tanglewood.  Kraft told me that Robert Craft, no relation of course, had directed no fewer than 60 rehearsals in preparation for the Los Angeles concert in 1957, but that Boulez himself had conducted the performance; two years later, Craft conducted for the recording.

Hoose chose Kraft’s settings (composed 1990) of four of Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire poems in Hartleben’s German translation— four from the 29 texts that Schoenberg didn’t set — using the standard Schoenberg ensemble plus percussion, and including alto flute.  The four poems “Feerie,” “Mein Bruder,” “Harlequinade,” and “Selbstmord” were separated by short but spacious interludes.  Although Kraft did apparently specify some Sprechstimme, the greater part of these songs called for singing, thankfully, for Mary Mackenzie possesses a wide range of vocal expression from operatic declamation to hushed whisper. (She has already had good experience with Schoenberg’s Opus 21, including performances that I heard in Maine two years ago and reported on in these pages.)  It would be unfair to compare Kraft’s settings with those of Schoenberg, with whom, as he explained, he had no desire to compete, but inevitably one noticed that Kraft’s approach to the texts sounded more lyrical and relaxed, and allowed greater temporal breadth than in Schoenberg’s often hurried, furtive declamation. Especially moving:  the barcarolle-like interlude midway through “Feerie,” the dialogue of cello harmonics with percussion in “Mein Bruder,” the sostenuto interlude that followed with long notes for alto flute and bass clarinet menacingly underlined by tamtam shimmer, the fff “silken rainbow” in the last line of “Harlequinade,” and especially the overall restraint of expression in most of “Selbstmord” (suicide). One would think that the last song called out for cries of anguish, but no, Pierrot hangs himself more or less peacefully “in the moon’s white robe.”

Collage New Music (file photo)

Collage New Music (file photo)

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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