David Hoose, music director of Collage New Music, remarked before the concert that Jihyun Kim’s Once Upon a Time…, receiving its Boston premiere, and Richard Festinger’s Il était une fois…, in a world premiere, had been programmed side by side entirely by coincidence. (I have promised that if they ever do that again by intention, I will compose Es war einmal… for the group.). Hoose also said that Festinger’s sounded “French” in its lightness, but actually Kim’s piece, for the full Collage ensemble (including wind chime and brake drum), took on considerably more French characteristics, with a Parisian-pastiche bounce in trochaic 6/8 and an abundance of whole-tone scales adorning Debussy-like ninth chords in the piano. The triangle trills and glissandi in natural harmonics in both violin and cello (please remember that Ravel wrote these even before Stravinsky made them world-famous in Firebird) were no less French. Textures varied from ff tutti at the beginning to gentle dialogues as the slow middle section came into focus with more pellucid chordal harmony, offset by hammered low-register crunches; soon the strings were loosed again in a frantic train ride, eventually reaching a glowing almost-major-triad at the end. One could perceive a three-section form, also beloved of the French, in the gritty ten minutes.
Richard Festinger, a San Franciscan already well known to our audiences, sat in on the premiere of his 50th-anniversary Collage commission, Il était une fois… for piano trio. This invigorating three-movement piece of genuine chamber music, with its early-20th-century Impressionist echoes, delighted us. The first movement principally occupied itself with a violin-cello duo, punctuated with hovering piano chords, and a lot of fast parallel fourths; the meter was 12/8 (Parisian, like the Kim work just heard). The second movement had longer and more broadly expressive melodic lines, in a grand Romantic manner, and some of these were imitative in shape and dialogue; again, the texture of string duo opposed directly by the piano was evident. “Counterpoint is close to my heart,” the composer said in the pre-talk. The finale somewhat echoed Ravel’s piano trio, with string trills and tremolos, and fast repeated figurations in the piano — which doesn’t necessarily contradict the composer’s stated preference of variation over repetition, because this finale moved along very effectively with both.
Marti Epstein, whose Komorebi I heard in November 2021, enjoyed the premiere of The Nemophilist for the full ensemble; the title, she noted, means “one who loves the forest and its beauty and solitude,” referring to the daily walks she enjoyed behind her composing shack at the MacDowell Colony. She spoke of some eight chords that were variously disassembled and reassembled in different registers throughout the piece; these were heard at the beginning in tight, low-register bunches, widely separated by blocks of silence. “…Listening with concentrated focus to the smallest of sounds informed the sound world that I wanted to create…” is a good description of the listener’s experience as well as the composer’s in this delicate, Japanese-like sound canvas, which never rose above a mezzo-forte in intensity. A mysterious percussion ensemble throbbed in the background: four Chinese gongs, five Chinese bowls, and six Swiss cowbells, plus bass drum, with three different kinds of sticks. Near the end came some gentle melodism, four- and five-note scale segments repeated in the treble register, the higher instruments unequally stumbling over each other in doubling — an anti-dialogue that strongly appealed.
A Sibyl, six poems of Susan Stewart which Collage commissioned from James Primosch in 2017 served an elegiac function, because the composer, well known to Collage, had died two years ago from a rapidly-developing cancer. “If you ask a leaf”, the first song, began with a frightening ff unison in the ensemble: “Will you die and will you love?” A storming cello settled down to major-minor harmony, soon returning to a duet of piano and percussion (vibraphone, bass drum), ending with “And if you ask, you’ll find me” (cello, clarinet, piano) and “And if you ask, I’ll answer (cello, clarinet) — a Sibylline declaration from Cumae, but it telegraphed anger. The second song, “If you ask the night,” conveyed nocturnal gentility; an oscillating pendulum of harmonies brought forth a palpable D major and B minor, very warm in sound, and at “The gull cries” the piano clattered in noisy octaves; the song ended with a sigh in clarinet, flute, and violin. The third poem, “Descent,” began with piano and tomtom in a harsh dialogue before a reassuringly regular beat of dripping chords. (Unfortunately, the printed program omitted some of the text, which made for difficulties in comprehension.) “Return” again brought forth an oscillating texture, with long melodic phrases in high-register parallel fifths, and one was reminded of some Ravel sounds, including “La vallée des cloches” (Miroirs) and “La flûte enchantée” (Shéhérazade). Susan Stewart, present in the pre-concert talk, spoke of the “African structure” of “Humming Hymn,” the fifth song, in which a text of “star flicker cricket firefly” was repeated with permutations, like change-ringing, in a fast texture of brittle unison pizzicati with piano and marimba; this yielded to a verse, “The moon is mine / from dark to dawn,” with claves, vibraphone, and piano in patterns; a da capo of the four beginning words and pizzicato texture concluded the song. The final song, “If you ask again,” recapitulated the violent texture of the beginning song, and with similar text: “I wanted to die. / I hoped to love.” Once again, oscillating harmony supervened (“To wax and wane with / the moving tide”), and one sensed that “If you ask again” did ask again, summarizing for the set of six. It faded away gradually from a tonic ninth chord, with the singer humming, lips closed but tonally clear. Mary Mackenzie sang with a beautiful though at times maybe overpowering vocal sound, but with perfect understanding, for this delicately colored cycle.
David Hoose commanded the evening firmly and amiably as always, and the well-prepared nucleus delivered with complete confidence in the well-filled, 150-seat Killian Hall: Linda Toote, flute (she also had a light-toned wooden piccolo); Alexis Lanz, clarinets; Catherine French, violin; Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello; Christopher Oldfather, piano; and Craig McNutt, percussion (two groups, on the left for Marti Epstein, on the right for everyone else).