As one always interested in the serious concert music being composed today, even when its audience seems smaller and smaller but always there, I have been going to Collage New Music concerts regularly for the past 40 years. Sunday’s particularly interesting and rewarding event, including a Boston premiere and two first-ever performances, rewarded the 2/3’s full Pickman Hall, which included many local composers on hand to hear the latest instrumental pieces by their colleagues and friends; the oldest work on the program clocked in at just eight-years of age. Due to continuing Covid restrictions, the small ensemble of flute and clarinet with their larger brethren, violin, cello, piano, and percussion began without one of Artistic Director David Hoose’s lucid introductions.
Kathryn Salfelder’s Kaleidoscope formed a short, lightweight but pungent opener, with a typically arresting chord marking a fortissimo beginning. Fast repeated sixteenths with violin and cello, including snapped pizzicato, plus rapidly-changing moods and textures (hence the title), put forth a nicely blurred C minor for about two minutes. (I have just completed an essay involving a lot of C minor, so I am sensitive.)
Yu-Hui Chang’s Intersect (2014) delivered mightier and more expressive stuff. It began with extended low rumbling at the bottom of the piano, echoed by a florid flute cadenza, which led to loud and soft episodes with many very prolonged tones and extreme crescendi (I remembered those long, long sostenuto sounds in the two commissioned pieces I heard at Brandeis a week ago), growing to a broad ff. Contrasting upper-register bell chords in the piano, col legno cello, and ghostly rumbles and flutters moved into the lower register of the bass flute, which also demonstrated harmonics and multiphonics that sounded good. The piece died away at the end into a key slap on the bass flute that actually seemed to echo in the hall that held its breath.
I hadn’t heard a new work by our own Peter Child for several years. His amiable, refreshing, almost boisterous Turning Point began with huge hammering chords on the piano, high register, drastically reinforced by what I thought was a glockenspiel bashed with a handful of brass mallets at once (it turned out to be a reliable brake drum). This elegant percussive scream yielded to a furioso texture in fast 6/8, a real toccata with fingered piano octaves all over the middle register, with imitative bits that stood out. After one more hypermetallic burst like the beginning, the piece wound down slowly to a dialogue for low piano and tomtom, and a final, mournfully expressive alternation of chromatic duets, violin/cello and flute/clarinet in slowly answering phrases of thirds and tenths. A final section with watery, Ravel-like arpeggiation in the upper piano glowed with harmony of gratifying sweetness. The “turning point” even suggested a turn of the century, or actually of two centuries: 19th and 20th, combined.
Yehudi Wyner, who may be 92 years old, nevertheless offered a warmly youthful-sounding Sequel (“Sequel to what?” read his notes. “I am unable to say”). The opening downward-reaching single notes in the piano spelled out a whole-tone chord that Scriabin might have cherished, developed in three varied statements. It amused us to hear the fast 6/8 that followed so soon after Peter Child’s 6/8, but this soon gave way to changes that foretold new, slower shapes: violin and cello in two pairs of chordal sighs, with marimba accompanying, from dialogue to dialogue. Soon a melody materialized in string octaves, low, and strongly tonal, even though fleeting. Wyner seemed to be reaching into his Russian ancestral roots for some of the harmony. At the end, all five players came together in octaves with a long, rich melody that heaved another pianissimo sigh. Despite the sometimes-carefree energy that penetrated every gesture, a relaxed quality obtained for the entire work, along with confidence and certainty about every note.
David Froom larded his Hidden Motives with a big assortment of ideas. Ostensibly a quintet unfolded as a big dialogue of almost concertino-like episodes in solo piano and a ripieno of flute, clarinet (with bass clarinet), violin and cello. Motivic fragments displayed themselves throughout, frequently in 2/4 16th-note patterns and imitative snatches, in a manner reminiscent of Hindemith’s contrapuntal chamber pieces of the 1930s but much gutsier. The piano part especially projected a wild digital personality, sometimes with resonant chordal harmony, at other times with menacing bursts, amid trills everywhere in the other instruments. Near the end, the clarinet held forth with long fff notes in the high register, and then backed away, taking the bass clarinet in a softer answer; in a challenge to the piano, a unison quartet melody appeared before dying down to a dramatic whispered conclusion. The whole work sounded like a real narrative, but a hidden motivation ever hovered just below the surface.
Though these works represented five different composers, they showed a considerable unity of conviction that clearly demonstrated what kind of rich variety is possible from a Pierrot-ensemble. Some this concert’s unity may have been attributable to plain luck, but more likely it was Hoose’s implementation of the Collage New Music so confident display, as carefully chosen by David Hoose. Four of the composers were on hand to enjoy their successes, and so well vindicated by the performers, some of whom were appearing with Collage for the first time. Here we are happy to congratulate Catherine French, violin; Steven Laven, cello; Alexis Lanz, clarinets; Linda Toote, flutes; Aaron Trant, percussion; and Christopher Oldfather, piano. David Hoose had apparently left to conduct in Taiwan only a few hours after the February 27th Collage concert, and had to be quarantined for several days before meeting his players there; he returned to Boston only five days before this concert and the Collage team began rehearsals at once. As the covidian shades dissipate, everybody is busier than ever, it seems. We are all grateful.