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Cohesive Collage Under Unperturbed Leader


An amiable Joan Tower (file photo)

Collage presented five composers at Longy Sunday whose strikingly different styles all showed real cohesion. Ryan Chase, the youngest of the five, wrote Stargazer, a group of four quite attractive, brief but telling astronomical observations in sound. “Constellations” began with a glowing upward seventh in the clarinet, followed by high-register staccato piano notes, string glissandi and high harmonics, and whooshing air through the flute. “Meteor Shower,” marked Presto scherzando, called for spit tones in the clarinet in short soft bursts, low-keyboard notes plus some inside-the-piano plucks, all pp and evanescent, evoking  a meteor flash in the night sky for no more than a second or two.  Slow, lush, and expressive, “Moonrise” sustained dominant harmonies, punctuated by a soaring cello with flute-clarinet trills, and a mixed metallic jangle of crotales, triangle, and glockenspiel against a background of high string harmonics. “Time-lapse” offered a retrospective glance into D minor and furious fiddling, a melody in flute-clarinet-piano octaves, and a flowering of warm C7.

There followed Tough Songs About Death by Eric Moe, at age 65 the oldest composer present. On poems by Dorianne Laux, these represented the evening’s serious heavies — emotionally heavy, because the textures individually were light and clear. A recurrent timbral leitmotif in this cycle represented a tolling bell (repeated middle-register piano) or a ticking clock (various wooden percussion). The first song, “Lapse,” brought sudden brief fireworks of piano-string-bass clarinet, and later booming piano bass and snapped cello, with repeated chords marked in part by a wooden sound I couldn’t identify. (I learned later that the croak came from a wooden “frog” with serrated back — a baritone version of a guïro, more or less.) “What’s broken” was measured by high-register dripping tones, and at the final words, “a blue cup fallen from someone’s hands,” a memorable high piccolo that sang but didn’t shriek. The longest song, “Cello,” began with the interesting philosophy of “When a dead tree falls in a forest / it often falls into the arms / of a living tree.” (One remembered the inscription once found in an old violin: Arbor viva tacui, mortua cano.) A long instrumental prelude, with blood-curdling behind-the-bridge scrapes on the viola, preceded the vocal text. A finely expressive cello solo supported the text over a wide range, with expressive sixths in double stops, all the while underlined by  a regular guïro pulse (an ordinary gourd, this time) that paused and then resumed more slowly at the end. “Death comes to me again, a girl” showed a lot of bundles of notes in gruppetti for the whole ensemble, often with a complex white-note harmony, fortissimo bursts, and clusters of midrange trills. Soprano Tony Arnold, with a light but strong voice and admirable declamation, sang the entire cycle without a moment of faltering or lack of clarity. Her precision and beautiful tone seemed perfectly matched to the balance of the instruments. (I was moved to recollect Collage’s October concert [my review HERE] that included Elliott Carter’s A Mirror on Which to Dwell, when I complained that that work was too complex and too richly textured for ready comprehension. Having since heard a recording of a different and brilliantly transparent performance, I would now seriously revise that earlier criticism, and blame my dissatisfaction on the practical insufficiencies of what I heard before even more than on my lack of familiarity with the work.)

Joan Tower’s 1986 Breakfast Rhythms I amiably blended long sustained tones and interrupting short explosions, a restricted repertory of sustained pitches, regularly-recurring chords in which triads emerged readily from a complex background, repeated tritones, and a fine cantabile line in paired violin and cello. She provided her own delightfully noncommunicative and technical essay. She is scheduled to be the special guest at Collage’s fundraiser in April.

Seven by Seven by Matthew Ricketts, seven minutes long for seven players in slow triple meter, was another tolling-bell piece. It started with a gently-repeated middle C in the piano (I was reminded of Debussy’s Les Angélus) that spread out gradually with scale segments in other instruments surrounding it, sighing in crescendo-decrescendo warbles, and eventually becoming harmonic motion. In a pre-concert talk, the composer spoke of beginning the compositional process with a single note which he would “treat like a fact,” and in fact it became a bell tone.

Do all contemporary concerts include crotales?

Kamran Ince’s Waves of Talya (1988) closed the show with a bright, chopping, noisy, and overly long expostulation in several sections of what might be considered modern Janissary music. We heard a lot of D minor, often in a minimalist texture of repeated chords, sweet and resonant, strongly harmonic with measured bass supporting a sharply contrasting upper chromatic melody. Ince gave occasion for plenty of color, alternately austerely chorale-like and jingling, and with a middle-Eastern flavor that one already heard years earlier in the ostinato ensembles of Alan Hovhaness’s work. Sometimes he echoed Ravel, or even of Poulenc’s gamelan-like pastiches. A long tutti with a melody in octaves, including xylophone doubling piano, appeared near the big D major-minor ending.

The final piece excepted, the works chosen seemed designed for intensive yet concise expression. All of the composers wrote economically, leaving very little that didn’t seem necessary, and all with a keen sense of sound. The players appeared to be gratified by this, especially veterans Catherine French, violin, Christopher Oldfather, piano, and Craig McNutt, percussion, all of whom had their hands full pretty much all the time; and the newcomers Sarah Brady, flute, Alexis Lanz, clarinet, Mary Ferillo, viola, and Jennifer Lucht, cello — a double handshake to Lucht for her outstanding and fearless accompaniment in Eric Moe’s song named after her instrument. David Hoose served as the ever-unperturbed master of the entire ensemble, as he has been doing for years now with first-class skill and taste.

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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