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The Constancy of Collage New Music


David Hoose

Collage New Music’s 46th season’s highlights include pairing Collage’s veteran American collaborators Fred Lerdahl and John Harbison with newer voices Yi Yiing Chen and Joseph Sowa; a winter program devoted to recent British works; and three superb guest sopranos. The season opener on Sunday October 15th features the world premiere of James Primosch’s new song cycle A Sibyl, commissioned for Collage New Music and funded by the Fromm Music Foundation.

Collage New Music Manager (and BMInt contributor) David Stevens discusses Collage’s vibrant opener and forthcoming programs with music director David Hoose.

DS: The first concert seems to incorporate young and old compositional voices of the American contemporary music world in a pastiche of colors. Can you discuss what’s in store for the audience that day?

DH: Four of the five works on this American program are new to us and probably new to our audience. Three are by Boston composers, the fascinating Marti Epstein (who teaches at Berklee), Aaron Helgeson (Longy), and Yi Yiing Chen, a wonderful NEC graduate student who has been Collage’s Composition Fellow. Their musical languages tell us that, today, there still is no common musical language!

It surprises me to know that one of Marti’s favorite composers is Anton Webern, since little on the surface of her music sounds to me like anything of his highly rarefied, clearly phrased music. Instead, her music undulates in an impressionistic, dreamy haze, with its little nuances taking on great significance. Aaron’s song cycle poems of sheer nothingness is bizarrely fractured settings of 12th-century Occitan troubadour texts (sung in Occitan). The songs use a rich palette of extramusical sounds, and they suggest something of what music in that distant time may have sounded like. Yi Yiing’s The Starry Night has a magical luminosity (“The Flowing Moon” and “Lust for Innocence”) interacting with edgy, high-strung music (“Breakdown” and “The Noisy Sky”). This program centers on another premiere, A Sibyl, commissioned by Collage from the very expressive James Primosch. He’s written a powerful piece for soprano and the ensemble, setting six emotionally precise and provocative poems by the American poet Susan Stewart. Together, the poetry and music focus on the mysterious line between earth and spirit, life and death, despair and love. The cycle begins:

Will you die and will you love?
Will the armies tread the wheat?
Will the storms erase the sky?
Will the wicked come to grief?

The one classic on the concert is Fred Lerdahl’s elegantly electrifying Fantasy Etudes, music we love performing and our audiences love hearing. To me, Fantasy Etudes is one of the truly seminal works for the Pierrot+percussion ensemble, and any performance is an exciting experience for everyone.

Lerdahl’s Fantasy Etudes signify a best-of Collage aspect to each program this year, with the programming of works by Peter Maxwell Davies and John Harbison for the second and third concerts respectively. What are your thoughts on the historical consciousness of an ensemble like Collage, who have performed specifically modern music since 1971?

It’s one thing to commit yourself to performing only the newest works, to being a clearinghouse for new music. There’s a certain excitement in that, but an awful lot of music written over the last 50 or so years is now languishing, unperformed since its premiere. Music of lasting quality isn’t—or shouldn’t be—expendable. I call Fantasy Etudes is a CNM favorite, but, really, how many people know this music? And John Harbison’s Mottetti di Montale, which we’re performing on our third concert, is one of John’s most important works—but it hasn’t been heard in Boston since Collage presented it last, well over 10 years ago. So, as the range of modern music continues to expand, we try to reach both back and forward. It certainly makes making the repertoire choices daunting.

Each concert includes an amazing guest soprano (Mary Mackenzie, Tony Arnold, Simone Macintosh). How do you see their uniquely expressive voices as a contribution / engagement with their programs?

Mary and Tony are return guests to Collage, and the gifts they have brought to our concerts have been extraordinary. Simone is new to us, but she’s not new to Harbison, who, after working with her this last year, hoped we could have her join us for his Mottetti.

Mackenzie, who sings both the Helgeson and the Primosch, has stunning musical and communication skills, and I can think of few people who could bring to life both of these utterly contrasting pieces. We’ve cast the (wild and crazy) Tony Arnold a bit against type, since she’ll be performing not an overtly theatrical piece by Berio or Birtwistle but James MacMillan’s incantory Raising Sparks, music whose words and music address themes of creation and redemption. The beautiful cantata for soprano and six instruments uses a vivid libretto by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, which in turn draws its inspiration from the writings of 18th-century Hasidic rabbi and mystic Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl. Composer and librettist address the rabbi’s twofold concept of Creation: Zumzum (God holds back light to create something other than himself) and Shevira (God shines His light of creation, but that light is so intense that it smashes the clay vessels intended to capture it). It’s a luminous work. Later in the season, Simone Macintosh will undoubtedly bring both searching understanding and sheer beauty to John’s penetrating song cycle. In any season, we would be fortunate to have any one of them with us, but all three….

This third concert will center on the cycle of Harbison’s, his grand Mottetti de Montale. Can you share Collage’s history with this work and the commissioned portion?

John composed this expansive work for mezzo and piano in 1980, and, over the next 20 years, one section at a time, he orchestrated the Mottetti for an ensemble of nine instruments. With the completion of each of the cycle’s books, Collage performed them, and then the complete work in 2000. We recorded it in 2005, for which we were pleased to receive a Grammy nomination. It’s time we all heard this powerful music, whether again or for the first time.

Collage is entering its 46th season and you your 26th season as music director. That’s a milestone! Going forward, what excites you about the contemporary-music scene in Boston and about Collage’s influence on the landscape?

Well, there’s never a dull moment in planning and presenting a Collage season—the choices of music always expand, while the funds never seem to expand, and we somehow manage to give what I think—or at least hope—are engaging, musical, beautiful programs, all performed at an exquisite level by musicians who have been doing this for a long time, and for a long time together.

Every Boston new-music ensemble, whether short-lived or lasting, brings something important to our musical landscape, as do any non-new-music ensembles that regularly and unflinchingly embrace things new and challenging. The question for me is whether the works on our programs make sense together, whether they somehow speak to one another, even if over wide language chasms. Perhaps that focus helps define our programming. However, one of Collage’s greatest strengths lies in the ensemble’s musical cohesiveness. This is not only an ensemble of really fine musicians, but an ensemble of really fine musicians who know one another’s playing very, very well. For instance, over its 46 years, CNM has had only a couple of pianists, a couple of cellists, and not many more violinists. Of all the music I conduct, Collage’s repertoire is some of the most daunting, but this ensemble actually makes it some of the easiest. Without a doubt, it makes it some of the most satisfying.

Collage’s opening concert is this Sunday October 15th at 3pm. Hoose will host a preconcert talk with the program’s composers an hour before performance (2pm). For more information, season subscriptions, and tickets, see the website .

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