in: Reviews

February 11, 2019

Collage Moves Souls and Chairs

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A small but receptive audience braved the cold weather for Collage New Music’s second concert of the season at Pickman Hall on Sunday. The evening’s main success belonged to David Rakowski, whose Dream Logic (2017), in seven short movements, revealed itself as the night’s most persuasively mature work.

The opener, Hannah Lash’s bagatelle called C, for vibraphone and piano from 2011 wasn’t quite like Terry Riley’s famous minimalist In C, but it began with plenty of C octaves, “in a motor-like, additive process,” as the composer’s notes said. David Hoose, in his pre-concert talk, remarked that it was full of 32nd notes; that seemed plain enough. It may have been an etude, but Christopher Oldfather and Craig McNutt played it with apparent ease. I kept trying to think of an entirely different piece with almost the same title, Poulenc’s beautiful song, C..

Computer catastrophe prevented Laura Schwendinger, composer of High Wire Act (2005) for flute, violin, viola, cello, and piano, from attending. The five short movements began with the flute playing into the piano strings for resonance, a delicate and effective sound. “Tightrope-Walker” featured some of the highest string harmonics I’ve ever heard, way off the 4096-cycle top note of the piano, plus a lot of ponticello tremolos and warbles between adjacent strings. “The Aerialist” also had open-string harmonics, but arpeggiated across four strings; Ravel did this in the first of his Mallarmé songs, though rather less than we heard here. “Trapped Bird (in circus tent)” had plenty of pizzicato and trills, with a nice flute melody on top, and everything was wrapped up in “Troupe Finale.”

Sean Shepherd’s Lumens (2005) used the Pierrot Lunaire combination plus percussion.  (I remembered that lumen, a Latin noun, has a proper neuter plural lumina, but this piece was totally different from the Lumina of the Boston’s Symphony’s recent concert.) “Lumens” as an English plural might refer to the open spaces in the interior of blood vessels and other organs, through which light might illuminate. In any event, this work had luminous harmony: perceptible triadic and bichordal shapes carefully organized with an ear to good sound; the C major and E-flat major triads, one on top of the other, seemed characteristic in this attractive work. One heard a lot of chordal texture of everybody at once, sometimes in bursts, sometimes contrasting with fast flashes of sound, with whole-tone harmony, and with a lot of brittle staccato that was energizing. The piece “not only sounds optimistic,” said David Hoose, “but the composer admits that it is optimistic!”

Benjamin Park, Collage fellow

After intermission, we heard from Benjamin Park, this year’s Collage Fellow. His Ulam’s Spiral (2019), dedicated to the memory of David McBride, his teacher at Hartt College, disclosed a decidedly 20th-century attitude in its 21st-century world premiere, replete with perceptible phrases and shapes in an ever-changing but strongly tonal harmony, and notable low-register G minor and G-sharp minor cycling in and out. The overall sound possessed attractive and convincing Romantic expansiveness, though the Morse-code and prime-number relationships pointed to by the composer could hardly be heard. An alto flute added richness to the mid-register sound, contrasting with the piano’s bottom register that began the piece. To the percussion’s usual expertise we heard the penetrating sound of crotales played with a bow, and at the end some unusual overtones, almost like some humming not of this world: this turned out to be a Super Ball bouncing on the edge of the tamtam.

David Rakowski, whose Dream Logic (2017), in seven short movements, revealed itself as the night’s most persuasively mature work. Rakowski mentioned his recollection of Elliott Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, and spoke of characters featured in the work, which Carter wrote for the New York New Music Ensemble in just five weeks: “antsy unisons,” “pissed-off bass clarinet and cello,” “hocketed single notes,” “tutti outburst.” Extra instruments augmented the Pierrot ensemble: the pianist and percussionist both played melodicas, and the pianist used a toy piano as well (it sounds like a crunchy xylophone). Like some of the other music we heard, but quite unlike Schoenberg, it evinced a predilection for octave or unison writing with flute/violin or cello/bass clarinet, repeated alternations, and a propensity for piano and piccolo to chase each other, or the clarinet and violin. Three of the movements had actual character titles: “Quick and paranoid,” “Fiery,” “Carefree”— the last of these with a “carefree jazzy character,” as the composer explained — jazzy figures, rhythms, chords, perhaps, but no improvisation. Nothing in fact seemed improvised in this work; whatever dreamy carefreedom sounds like, it also sounds logically and masterfully placed, and everything worked well.

Congratulations to the regulars of the core Collage ensemble: Catherine French, violin; Anne Black, viola; Mickey Katz, cello; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Sarah Brady, flute; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Craig McNutt, percussion. David Hoose, longtime director, handled everything with full command in a totally relaxed manner; I’ve said this before about his expert direction even without a baton, and am happy to say it once more.

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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