“Summer Past and Present,” Collage New Music’s Sunday picknic at Pickman Hall, was impressive as it was long. Boston premieres of loud pieces bookended the concert featuring the core ensemble of Christopher Krueger (flute), Robert Annis (clarinet), Catherine French (violin), Joel Moerschel (cello), Christopher Oldfather (piano), and Craig McNutt (percussion), conducted by David Hoose.
Gordon Beeferman’s Rites of Summer (2015) pares-down (“short, impatient, and to the point,” his notes say) of a ballet score he composed eight years earlier. What remains amounts to perhaps six movements, beginning with a tutti of crunch chords, rhythmically unified, like a speeded-up Danse sacrale without any downbeats; this was quickly followed by a soft sostenuto on a single harmony, surmounted by a solo cello and woodwinds bending their pitches. Scenes that followed featured melodies in piano octaves, upper-register violin and woodwinds in duets, and concluding with a mechanistic toccata. Some of this music was warmly expressive; some of it was funny; and much of it was as loud as the ensemble could manage.
Daniel Godfrey’s Juliet at her Window, four songs after Shakespeare, offered a big contrast: strongly tonal music such as doesn’t often appear on Collage concerts. There was a nice nostalgic feeling of Rodgers & Hart, far in the background, but the harmony, with its well-shaped bass motion and rich sevenths and ninths, was also coloristically decorated with chromatic instrumental details that cross and recross into the texture, and would hardly be mistaken for a Broadway sound. “My only love sprung from my only hate!” was a pellucid D major; “Dost thou love me?” a bouncy C major, whose regular staccato chords seemed to be heartbeats, punctuated by a delicate web of string tremolos and flute trills. “My bounty is as boundless / As boundless as the sea!” offered some marine textures, with watery woodwind roulades and bell-like chords in harmonies that Ravel would have respected; I’m not sure why the flute and clarinet played in bent unisons at “…beggars that can count their worth,” but the sound was very attractive. The final song, “Good night! Sweet, good night!” was a D major springtime waltz, nicely distributed in the ensemble, including high-register tweets for “a wanton’s bird” and “a falconer’s voice”; the piano managed some fine filigree here as well. The last line, “That I shall say good night / Till it be morrow!” was set to a devastating augmented sixth chord. This whole group of songs represented a fine imagination, entirely appropriate to the text, and Janet Brown, who sang them beautifully, was never overpowered.
The hardest edge was what came after the intermission: In the Nick of Time by Seymour Shifrin, a beloved composer still fondly remembered by many of us who knew him well. Shifrin was a revered teacher at Brandeis, which in the late 1960s inherited the style sévère from Princeton and guards it yet today. In the Nick of Time was completed in 1978, a year before his early death, is in three continuous movements lasting twenty minutes, and adds a double bass to the core ensemble. This is difficult music in a post-Schoenberg idiom, with a web of short integrated gestures and polymetric melodic layers that seem to be proceeding in simultaneous different tempi. One needs to hear this music repeatedly to grasp its full melodic and textural richness. But moments of inspired color and depth of meaning are apparent at every turn — a jittery figure, a chordal pattern, a cadenza, an instant of duet to remember. The players were totally attentive and the results were palpable; the audience responded politely but not warmly, as though they needed more than just a nick in time to think things over. David Hoose kept all of this under control with what appeared to be a steady 4/4 beat, carefully restrained with well-placed left-hand cues, a difficult job expertly managed.
Marjorie Merryman was one of those who, in the pre-concert forum, paid tribute to Seymour Shifrin, who was her teacher. “How do you create referential moments?” was one of the lessons she said she learned from Shifrin, and someone else mentioned that Shifrin was “the enemy of the formulaic,” which seems about right. Merryman also quoted Shifrin as saying, “Does the composer have a God-given right to repeat?”, to which she replied, Yes, the composer does have that right, but, she said, “That was the wrong answer,” which drew an understanding laugh from the audience. (Schoenberg himself was as oracular as any composer has ever been in history, and he wrote that “musical coherence seems impossible without repetition.”) I had all these pronouncements in mind when I heard Merryman’s two Elegiac Songs for soprano, piano, violin, cello, and clarinet, on poems of Louise Glück, in a Boston premiere. These were written in memory of her husband, the composer Edward Cohen, another cherished friend of many of us, who also had studied at Brandeis. They involve a sui generis tonality that goes beyond the complex pandiatonicism of, for instance, Copland’s and Barber’s songs, tonality that enfolds a discreet intrusion of chromatic tones and avoids classical progression but still includes tonal centers that are definite even when well masked by non-triads. The tonality is reinforced by the careful repetition of small melodic figures that fade in and out of the transparent accompaniment. A line in the first song, “The Night Migrations,” depicts the migrating birds with an evanescent upward line of diatonic parallel fourths. The second song, “The White Lilies,” reaches a moment of high-register fortissimo (“cold with their terror”) that quickly recedes (“…it could all end”) into a pianissimo resignation; a moment later there is an oscillating pair of chords very like the last page of Wozzeck, mixed with bell-like piano sounds. “How many summers I live to return.” Once again Janet Brown delivered her best, and obviously relished the task. Merryman’s songs were, for me, one of the high points of the evening.
The closer, Carl Schimmel’s comparatively short rite. Apotheosis was loud and furious with apparent brave and well-ordered chaos and frequently tonal harmony, which the composer explained in detailed printed notes. In the forum, he spoke of “free rhapsodic gestures passed from one instrument to the next,” and I heard pairs of big chords rather like the climax of Ravel’s Scarbo, strong and winningly effective. Craig McNutt’s percussion kitchen worked overtime here, and I especially liked the 1960s sound of a crotale bowed with a cello bow—sinuous and sinusoidal at the same time. The pianissimo high-register A major chord at the very end jogged me with an incongruous memory: the last sound in In the Steppes of Central Asia, or was it the high-register strings at m. 74 of Daphnis et Chloé?
It was disappointing to see the hall barely half filled, but the discouragement may have been partly wrought by the failed heating system; most of those present wore coats.
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.