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Diatonics, Chromatics and Perceptibilities


John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)

The 45-year-old Collage New Music, Boston’s second-oldest contemporary music ensemble, honored John Harbison, one of its major founders, ahead of his forthcoming 80th birthday, with exemplary performances of two of his works at Pickman Hall Sunday night. He composed the short, three-movement Die Kürze (Brevity) in 1969, having just turning 30; scored for a Pierrot Lunaire ensemble of piano, violin, cello, clarinet (with bass clarinet) and flute (with piccolo), it still sounds bracingly fresh. “What you will hear is a lot of information coming by in a very compressed way,” Harbison said in a pre-concert talk, and the information came by in well-articulated gestures, from piano to quartet in alternation, phrase by phrase and always clearly. The complex atonal language — “probably the most chromatic point I reached,” the composer said —hardly sounded at all post-Webern, and never too thick; several times I thought of how these sounds compared to Stravinsky’s Movements for piano and orchestra, premiered in 1960 and now almost completely forgotten. Harbison’s three brevities, “Prelude,” “Recitative,” and “Setting.” “Recitative” made my ears perk up with its melodic lines in octaves measured by different soli. Harbsion describes the third section as a “wordless setting” of Die Kürze by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), the great German poet whose deeply spiritual verse looks back to classical antiquity just as it inspired many in the 20th century.” One heard steady pulses like rhythmic verse, and well-wrought melodies of four-part chords.

The concert ended with a larger Harbison opus, The Seven Ages, six songs on poems of Louise Glück (2008), with accompaniment of piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute, and vibraphone. These declamatory scenes, offer passionate reflections that surge and recede emotionally — “In my first dream the world appeared / the sweet, the forbidden / but there was no garden, only / raw elements.”  In Harbison’s mature language the harmony is always chromatic but tonal, often dense, often spare with hidden diatonicism, organized into perceptibilities — “raw elements” — of clear sound. No. 2, “The Balcony,” doesn’t mention a swing or a hammock, but it swayed in 6/8 or 9/8, with feminine accents, like a berceuse: “an aria we didn’t in those years know.” In the pre-concert talk, Harbison referred to his own Montale songs, performed by Collage last season, by saying “I felt I had access to something in the music that I didn’t understand.”  Glück’s musical imagery in this song constantly changed, but echoed well in the setting, ending with bell chords in the piano and high harmonics in the strings. No. 3, “Decade,” featured ostinati, including a bell note low in the piano, F sharp that moved up to G sharp; in the last lines, “And finally / a place / found for everything,” produced a vindication of F major that came tumbling triumphantly through the texture.  No. 4, “Aubade,” suggested oscillations of chords, piano and vibraphone, as at “…sometimes / we watched it together;” but shortly after this there an Austro-German D minor arrived: “there was one dawn / I grew old watching.”  A more urgent tachycardia followed in no. 5, “Summer Night,” with the cello’s snapped pizzicato and a regular E-F-G that later rose to F-G flat-A flat, surrounded by wild warbles and crescendi culminating in loud accents. No. 6, “Fable,” exists as a very short envoi that couldn’t have lasted even a full minute; Harbison had mentioned a hidden quote from the A minor aria in La Traviata, but if that was “Addio del passato” I couldn’t detect it. Rebecca Printz, a strong, rich mezzo, sang with energy, grandeur, and love.

Three other works filled out the concert, but none of their composers attended. The full ensemble of piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, flute, and a lot of percussion brought forth a furioso piece called push / pull by Nick Omiccioli, who describes himself as “a heavy metal guitarist living in a composer’s body.” This galloping romp from 2013 (revised in 2015), came first. It featured fast sixteenth notes, with steady rumbles, throbs, trills, and big upbeats with crescendi, hovering around so much-repeated C that at least half of the music sounded like dominants in F minor in the grand manner.  Just before the intermission we heard Melinda Wagner’s Wick, which the composer described as “at times just a little bit naughty;” it resembled push / pull in its rapid 16ths and abundance of mallet percussion, with a flashy dialogue of piano and marimba. The piano regularly oscillated between fast passage work, palm clusters (even once with forearm), and grandioso bell chords that cascaded around the ensemble. It included some interesting soli, especially the violin cadenza and an expressive alto flute in the slower middle section.

Jeffrey Mumford’s a garden of flourishing paths (2008, revised 2017), consisted of eight short pieces for five players (piano, violin, cello, flute, percussion), composed in honor of Elliott Carter’s centenary, each revealing well-shaped dialogues for two or three soli contrasting with the larger group in interesting ways. Mumfor marked three Capriccioso with differently-paced metric lines (one remembered Carter’s metric modulation); he also penned a Molto appassionato e rapsodicamente that stuck close to G minor; an Impulsivo with rapid twitches of flute and violin; and a final Sparso (I looked it up; it means “spread out”) that was much slower than the other seven, with long sustained notes (including bowed vibraphone) that coalesced into major seconds and then close clusters of tones, set off with cello pizzicati and tinkling high-register piano, expressive and even eloquent.

Christopher Krueger (flute), Robert Annis (clarinet), and Joel Moerschel (cello), having retired after years of excellent participation, we met their respective successors, Clint Foreman, Alexis Lanz, and Oliver Aldort. The newcomers seemed right at home, even when juggling instruments. Catherine French, violin, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, continue their decades-long dedicated service; Anne Black, viola, and Robert Schulz, percussion, joined them on the evening’s program. David Hoose, director of the group since founder Frank Epstein retired in 1991, conducted with total confidence and control. We look forward to subsequent programs on February 10th and March 31st.

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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