Until Sunday, David Hoose had directed Collage New Music Ensemble for 27 years without programming a work of his own. That Pickman concert, the ensemble’s first in-person event in two years, signally began, though, with Hoose’s First Pass. He offered bashful apologies in the program notes for not having composed his own music for decades, but during the Grand Lockdown he welcomed the opportunity. The result showed time and effort well spent: a refreshing assembly of long melodic lines, or sostenuto textures punctuated by recurrent handfuls of brittle chords (including piano and marimba), together with some repeated bell-like harmony defined by the low-register piano, with subdued percussion. Certain distinct gestures helped to define a formal outline, like the fluttery chromatic figures in pianissimo violin and viola that returned just before the end of the piece. The striking sound of all strings and winds in unison evoked a cantus firmus. This impressive First Pass might also be validated as “first movement” of something even larger.
John Heiss’s Five Songs from James Joyce commissioned in 1996, and an ancient work in this context, presents a delicate ambiance entirely befitting the texts (from “Chamber Music”), and reminding me of the subtle small-textured pieces of composers like Griffes, de Falla, and Earl Kim, in which every note is precisely placed in the total gesture. With superb clarity and intonation, soprano Tony Arnold seemed ideal for this springtime cycle. “Strings in the earth and air” began with violin and cello in the first quatrain, adding flute in the second, and adding piano and clarinet (“All softly playing”) in the third. The texts are cyclic, too — the “goldenhair” of the second and fourth songs included the same bouncy dotted style, regular 2/4 meter, alternating with warbling flute and clarinet. The third song begins with a long, centering clarinet solo and ends by adding the strings and flute, and finally with three poignant chords in the piano. The fifth song began with a tick-tock inside the piano, then pizzicato with humming, then bell chords (“The old piano plays an air”), ending the song with the full chordal ensemble. Every word could be clearly heard, and this well-structured, heartwarming set of five songs sounded not new so much as lasting.
David Rakowski’s Arabesques I have Known is described by him as “YAPPP”* [* Yet Another Pierrot Plus Percussion Piece], composed in 2016 in three movements with whimsical titles. “Dirty Arabesques” began with a fast, jazzy melodic line inside the piano, with the strings finger-muted, with unison or heterophonic doubling by the winds and strings, punctuated here and there by piano and vibraphone with a low-register, cool-warm harmony. “Slow and restrained” had a dialogue of plucked cello and inside-the-piano alternating with flute and clarinet; these were followed by surging chords, up and down and in parallel layers as in Berg’s Chamber Concerto. The third movement, “Dirtier Arabesques,” was described as a finale, “an aggressive scherzo,” and this often betrayed a grand manner. The melodic lines first moved in unison, then heterophonically strayed off their own track, formed wiggles around the main line, and finally were completely upset by a raging piccolo. To this texture were added an Andes keyboard (look it up; it’s made by Suzuki, has two octaves, and a mouthpiece like a contrabassoon bocal) played by Christopher Oldfather, who managed the piano at the same time, and then a melodica (another lung-powered reed instrument with a keyboard, connected to a plastic hose) wielded by percussionist Craig McNutt. All of this made for a zoo of upper-register counterpoint of considerable volume and handsome rowdiness. Nothing here will remind you of Debussy’s works called “Arabesques,” but rather, if you think of what he does in Afternoon of a Faun, with a long, complex melodic line that grows and surges and varies and never pauses until the end, that tells you something of what happens in these amiable melodic relay races.
After the intermission came a premiere, of Void by Brian Sears, which was accompanied in the program booklet by a blank-verse description in three different point sizes of type and many textual voids indicated by widely spaced [ ] . The piece began with a tremolo on the tamtam, very soft, and moved into a lengthy space of long, sustained tones, with an ensemble of alto flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The piano played a lot of low-register sound, which alternated with ponticello squeaks in the violin, bent pitches in the flute, bowing behind the bridge, bowed vibraphone, bowed crotales, and bowed suspended cymbal, with inside-the-piano using three different kinds of drumsticks. The percussionist was equipped with a stand holding three sizes of triangle and a set of wind chimes. The end of the descriptive text runs thus:
] . . . the product of something destroyed which has not been grieved and healed; the wreckage of that destruction is trapped in and as the . . . [
Tony Arnold returned to the stage for the concluding work on the program, Sean Shepherd’s New Poems – 1907, with four texts in German by Rilke. It was both interesting and emotionally bracing to hear four songs so different in style. “Das Kapitäl”[spelled with ppoetic license to rhyme with Gequäl] began with piccolo shrieks of an imagined atonal nightmare, along with melodies in parallel octaves, and a vocal line full of wide, jagged skips like those in Schoenberg’s or Webern’s songs. The quieter “Die Genesende,” the convalescent woman, had a recurrent sigh of two intervals, a major third halfstepping down to a major seventh, moving gradually to a lower register, very consoling. “Der König” is about a 16-year-old king, impish, fast, staccato, with short bursts of regular beats and temple blocks; a Todesurteil (death sentence) was pronounced with a slapstick and bowed crotales, then ran off with a wild scurrying texture. The final song, “Abschied” (farewell), began with unaccompanied voice, then with added flute and clarinet, and then violin and cello; a second stanza had a prolonged vocal line that merged into the third stanza, with suddenly more tonal intervals, and finally dying away into very soft final notes. This “Abschied” was nothing like Mahler’s cosmic song of the same title; this one was perfectly intimate and poignant, as indeed was the entire set of four.
In sum, after the ensemble’s two years of incorporeal existence, I welcome its return to life with a large, ambitious program, and the vocal works especially proved enriching; I hope these concerts continue to feature Tony Arnold. In addition to the performers I have already mentioned, I would congratulate the rest of the nucleus: Sarah Brady, flute; Alexis Lanz, clarinet; Catherine French, violin; Anne Black, viola; Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello. And David Hoose, appearing in two capacities in this concert, continues to take honors as one of the best conductors anywhere, even though he doesn’t use a stick.