Sunday night’s Collage New Music concert, notable for its instrumental stridor, not only reflected the heavy and bellicose temper of the world stage in our time, it also included a fair proportion of optimism. The usual Pierrot ensemble plus percussion held forth, with two newcomers in the group: Rachel Braude (flutes) and Nicole Cariglia (cello).
Quicksand, a short work by Israeli Lior Navok, came about through a 50th-anniversary Collage commission. Navok noted confessionally: “Israel is shaking — politically, religiously, racially, socially, culturally — and the ground feels unstable: quicksand. This music describes a person who has been pushed into that quicksand.” The composer refers to the “existential crisis” of Israel’s right-wing assault on her own constitutional democracy, earlier in the year; he completed the piece before Hamas’s massacres of October 7th in Gaza, but its outrage sounds timely enough. The very high fff cluster, immediately followed by a low-register piano-percussion blast, set the starting tone; low-register swirls (piano, bass clarinet) and a four-note upward-moving bass figure measured much of the pace thereafter, contrasting with string squeals in the highest register of harmonics. The quiet ending, with violin and cello glisses in harmonics, sounding with pianissimo glockenspiel, signified a note of hopefulness.
Founding composer Andrew Imbrie’s (1921-2007) four-movement Earplay Fantasy (1995), was the longest and most gracious of the five programmed works. One remembered the prevalence of thin-textured counterpoint, steady rhythms, regular 16th notes, and precise staccato, with the emergence of distinct and centering pitches (Imbrie was a dedicated Californian student of Roger Sessions); some long melodic lines even might have been called Romantic by that generation. The piano brought unifying power to several varied textures — winds versus strings — with supporting rich polychordal harmony and an abundance of scales, and there were some nice instrumental moments as well, including an elegant duet for piccolo and vibraphone, and a big cadenza for solo cello. The ending of the last movement almost sounded like a quiet concerto, perhaps referring to the composer’s note: “… but mostly the intent is to depict a cheerful outcome.”
A short etude for solo piano, Mind Stretch, by Yu-hui Chang, appeared after the intermission. The stretching was apparent in the registrally separated short gestures, very high or very low in clusters, bunched in time with rests and pauses, and a prominent major second (maybe it was middle C and D but I couldn’t be sure) in the middle. It had repetition but not much rhythm; the composer, remarked, “I love counterpoint, but not in this piece.” The prepared piano plunked and thudded. Christopher Oldfather, veteran Collage pianist, exhibited one of the preparations semi-furtively afterward, a rubber eraser perhaps.
In the pre-concert discussion, Richard Cornell, the senior composer present, explained some of his working processes in Diversion, another Collage commission, completed this year. Every composer begins writing with some kind of idea in mind, but “as soon as you begin writing the piece, the material itself suggests other avenues.” His handout notes suggested an “optimistic, dancelike,” becoming “serious, urgent,” later “knocked off course.” One heard this in the change from spare counterpoint and precisely-placed pitches (and some fine unison melody of high flute and clarinet) to thicker and more bell-like, widely-spaced chordal texture and the first of two cadenzas for piano alone — slow, soft, with sostenuto-pedal resonances. The composer mentioned that, as he came to finishing the composition, he learned of the death of John Heiss, fellow Boston composer, flutist and polymath, and a good friend to so many of us. The second piano cadenza, a dark digression, pointed to a final section with a lovely solo muted violin, accompanied lightly with piano and bowed vibraphone, ending with a subtle high G in the flute, as a remembrance for John: “For him, in Diversion, the flute has the last word.”
The closer, a Boston premiere, Diaries II (2018) by Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, can be described as a splattering spectacle, with fistfuls of notes hurled in crunch chords, whirling scales, stormy top-register clusters, and motoric basses, as well as insistent notes and pedal points. There were four movements with suggestive titles: Machine with Cat Whiskers, Dream Bolero, Machine with Roller Chain, and Machine with Messiaen. The composer alluded to a psychological connection to the spectacular mechanical sculptures by Arthur Ganson, some of which can be seen in the MIT Museum. Piano and percussion carried the day in these noisy, colorful pieces, and Craig McNutt, percussionist, wielding at least three kinds of sticks, moved quickly among vibraphone, a five-octave marimba (with resonators), various side drums and tomtoms, a guïro, three woodblocks, and even a cabasa (a hollow gourd loosely laced with beads) which the flutist actuated. Everyone got the point of the “Dream Bolero” with its repeated ostinato C sharp in several octaves, although we heard no trace of a genuine bolero rhythm. Insistent single notes for very high piano and a very loud minor triad symbolized the “Roller Chain.” “Messiaen” seemed to evoke that composer’s glacially slow Quartet for the End of Time, but only briefly, as Oldfather and McNutt carried fff to center stage.
The whole ensemble, fully involved throughout the evening, delivered plenty of finely wrought and thoughtful playing, whether meditative or aggressive. Catherine French, violin; and Alexis Lanz, clarinets; plus those already mentioned, once again were expertly brought together by David Hoose, who has directed Collage ensembles for 32 years. It’s hard to believe, but he will retire at the end of this season. A grateful audience of about 70 cheered them on.