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Serving New Music Like No Others


The poet Eugenio Montale

Longy filled to at least three-quarters capacity Saturday night with a thoroughly comprehending and appreciative audience for the third and final concert of Collage New Music’s 46th season as an augmented ensemble with quite an assortment of instruments took to the stage for Stephen Hartke’s Wulfstan at the Millennium, in 12 brief movements for 10 players: four strings, four woodwinds including an unusual bass flute, piano (with some inside stuff), and percussion.

The composer noted the oneiric origin: “…when I was still a practicing church musician, I dreamt that I had composed a set of propers and responsories…” as well as medieval composers who might have inspired him, including the 11th-century monk Wulfstan of Winchester. The pre-Ars Nova sound of mixed open fourths, fifths, and major seconds was abundant in the various movements titled Introit, Conductus, Motet, Mysterium, “Hymnus in adventu Alexandri,” Responsory, and Oratio.  Some of these pieces were rhythmically and coloristically striking, such as the Conductus, marked by pulsing marimba fourths but counterbalanced by countermelodies in different metric layers, like two different kinds of music at once; this dialogue was no less prominent in the Motet, which began with a bicinium for muted viola and bass flute (a remarkably haunting sound) but then added a faster triplum in the high violin. One could imagine a psychological background of three-part motets of Petrus de Cruce, but also the bizarrely polymetric chansons of the fourteenth-century Cyprus Codex, as alluded to by the composer’s note. These named movements were offset from time to time by four Antiphons, which were typically chant-like melodies doubled in unison between winds and strings and occasional daubs of added color; there were punctuations of low-textured snarls and scrapes from the lowest instruments, polychords from the piano, and a Stravinskylike blend of warm harmony supporting the long melodic lines. All of these different textures and rhythmic styles add up to an attractive twenty minutes of mixed sounds. We remember the antique instrumental sound and Landini cadences in Stravinsky’s Agon (1956), but this Wulfstan from 1995, quite different from its obvious models, was gratifyingly fresh as well. One special recognition: for the second time in less than a year I witnessed a marimba bar bowed with a bow; Craig McNutt, percussionist, confirmed that the sound isn’t as penetrating as a vibraphone bar, but it does exist.

Islands on Fog by Joseph Sowa, this year’s Collage fellow, received its premiere. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, it presented a sostenuto, impressionistic sonic view of polar ice and sea for about 12 minutes, with pentatonic or whole-tone harmony in dreamy and often charming slow motion, occasionally dissolving into chromatic density for well-controlled climaxes. In the pre-concert talk, the composer mentioned his use of avant-garde instrumental techniques, knowing the special capabilities of Collage’s years of experience: there were plenty of bent pitches, key clicks, and spit tones for the flute and clarinet and drumming for the cello, and prominent use of vibraphone and percussion; but these conceits were less important to the progress of the piece than the coloristic changes of harmony, leading to an elegant conclusion in a clouded D minor. Speaking to the composer at intermission, I implied a rather crude comparison to the whole-tone sound of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica, and was relieved to find that he and I both enjoyed that chilly work, which originated as a film score.

The entire second half comprised John Harbison’s Mottetti di Montale, 20 songs in four libri, composed for mezzo and piano in 1980 and gradually orchestrated over the next two decades; Collage recorded the original version some years back, and Sunday’s was either their first or second performance (I wasn’t certain) of the complete instrumental version. The full complement consists of voice plus violin, viola, cello, bass, horn, clarinet (bass clarinet), oboe (English horn), flute (piccolo), and three keyboards: harpsichord, celesta, and portative organ, but no piano.

The short individual settings of the Montale poems each reflect Harbison’s fine concision and precision in miniature formal design, where there is usually an organizing melodic principle that can be as small as a single repeated staccato beat, one or two bars of rhythm alla marcia, a regular melodic motif of three or four notes in a distinct shape, a plain dotted figure, or two instruments together in paired intervals. The harmonic idiom is complex by itself and its transformations are complex, but it is mostly diatonic with chromatic tinges and motions, and these are mobilized in small units — differently, I think, from the way melodies live and move in Harbison’s symphonic works — to support the expressiveness of the text with uncanny effectiveness. The instrumental treatment is full or monophonic, spare or dialogued as needed, but never exaggerated. As in Stravinsky’s smaller-ensemble works, which I thought of from time to time, not a single note is superfluous, so in one sense, despite the total length of nearly an hour, these poems amount to ideal chamber music.

It’s hard to single out details from such a rich assembly of sounds as appear in this cycle. I especially noted the oscillating paired intervals at un gorgo di fedeltà (“a whirlwind of fidelity”, no. 2); the tritone chords in no. 5; the cronometro (stopwatch, no. 9) marking time with a high G pizzicato; the wooden flute pipes of the chamber organ in no. 11; the crescendo-decrescendo swells in solo due fasci di luce (“two lone bundles of light”, no. 19); the froglike leaping staccato figures in no. 17; the stabbing ff high D in the flute reflecting the “Bell Song” in Lakmé (no. 14); the gentle gondola che scivola (“gondola gliding forward,” no. 13), which, no kidding, is a virtual echo of Offenbach’s famous Barcarolle, assimilated with perfect elegance; the spare texture of celesta notes bridging between nos. 15 and 16, with the lovely beginning of Il fiore che ripete (The flower that repeats); the triumphant burst of A major triad, beginning and end, in no. 12.

Heartiest congratulations and praise for Collage New Music: Catherine French, violin; Joel Moerschel, cello; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Craig McNutt, percussion; augmented for thihs occasion by Anne Black, viola; Benjamin Levy, double bass; Rane Moore, clarinet; Jason Snider, horn; and Linda Toote, flute, substituting for an injured but speedily recovering Christopher Krueger. Simone McIntosh, mezzo-soprano, showed a satisfying range of dynamics and fine poetic sensitivity, which so effectively conveyed the nuances of Montale’s vividly musical-sounding poems. David Hoose, music director of Collage for 27 years, always gets my accolades for his leadership. It was a pleasure to witness the close partnership of composer, singer and conductor who know this music so well, fully supported by a roster of players who are all so comfortable with each other. This group serves new music like no other local association, to our eternal gratitude.

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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