IN: Reviews

Collage New Music at MIT

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An enthusiastic audience of mostly younger people in addition to the durable regulars solidly filled the 160-odd seats in Killian Hall, in the Hayden Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Sunday night for a six varied newish works. Four of the composers heard their own music and participated in the pre-concert talk.

A short Mobius by Jonathan Bailey Holland, composed 2018, opened the program; conductor David Hoose described it as a “user-friendly” five minutes. It began with a bright staccato motive of four notes, mapping the four upper open strings of a guitar, tossed about between clarinet, violin, cello and piano. This led to a contrasting middle section of bluesy chords, concluding with an abbreviated retrograde series of the opening motive in unisons, “taking us backward to where we started,” according to the composer’s account.

Texu Kim’s Ominous Omnibus, a 50th-anniversary Collage commission for the full ensemble, supported by a grant from the Korean Cultural Society of Boston, is a big piece, simultaneously substantial and insubstantial, with “its own demented quality,” Hoose remarked. The composer noted: “I incorporated diverse extended techniques as primary sonic materials” to evoke goblins (Dokkaebi) in Korean mythology and folklore. Specialized techniques abounded: sustained high string harmonics, glisses, col legno and ponticello, scraped bowing behind the bridge, fluttered and whistle-toned flute, piano with prepared strings, plucks, and fortissimo fisticuffs on the keyboard, plus a buffet of percussion, dominated the scene, with focused pitches relatively rare. Craig McNutt, long-time percussionist of Collage, outdid himself with a choreography of brushes (what actually appeared to be ordinary whiskbrooms) on different drumheads at the beginning, and, at the end with white-wound mallets, swatting at invisible flies in the air, perhaps writing Korean Hangul letters while Hoose carefully directed. I don’t deny that it was fun.

Time after Time by Fred Lerdahl (2000) is an even bigger piece, in two movements without titles. A ripple of different trills and steady pitches moves toward a dialogue of mallet instruments (glock, marimba, vibraphone and xylophone) in well-spaced chords with piano, and eventually evolves into a whirlwind of scales in all the instruments over wide and furious registers, sometimes pausing for breath in a roughly chordal texture in A minor. A bell-like oscillation of steady piano chords in upper-register pairs dominates the second movement, sometimes offset by mallet-instrument chords in pairs; a dialogue perpetually backgrounding high string harmonics and woodwind soli even offers a two-against-three from time to time. Near the end, some elegantly resonant tones from three Chinese bowls as well as the chimes echoed over the snowscape. Lerdahl is an old Collage friend, with several performances, but I don’t recall previous accounts of this really amiable work.

Dorothy Chang described her two-movement Of All Things Elusive, composed last year as a Collage co-commission, as “a musical exploration of the elusiveness of memory, language, and knowledge” in the aftermath of a head injury some years previously. The first movement, “Sea of haze,” she said represented “synapses misfiring,” with bent pitches in the alto flute, regularly blurring with adjacent semitones hovering in other instruments including string harmonics, with small, snatched melodic figures; soaring melodies in violin and cello offered climbing contrasts. The second movement, “(Mis)fire,” began at “breakneck speed” with quick bunches of notes in groups of five: upward chromatic scale segments, fifths, glissed triads, and short figures, as exciting to watch (McNutt’s mallets were blue) as they were to hear. All of these gestures occurred with remarkable clarity and precision, even “a little bit awry, a little bit sour,” as Chang mentioned in the pre-concert remarks, but Hoose answered that by calling the music “beautifully organized,” and it certainly sounded that way.

David Sanford spoke before the concert of the “street-musician aspect” of some of his work, and his Seventh Avenue Kaddish, for unaccompanied cello, composed for Matt Haimovitz shortly after the 9/11 catastrophe, echoed some of that aspect—a loose fantasia with fast 16th-note fingerwork, recitative-like espressivo, tremolos, and string snaps. Jan Müller-Szeraws brought it all forth with vigor and rich cantabile.

Ann Callaway’s Devachan composed the oldest work on the program in 1992. The Sanskrit term comes from Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophy of 150 years ago; Callaway described her composition as “a journey,” with “drama, vehemence, but single experience.” It began with a drum cascade and alto flute duet with low cello. Long sustained tones, with high piano, flute-clarinet paired octaves, and pentatonic segments, with short bursts of tonally clear harmony, moved easily back and forth. Percussion was prominent, with well-exposed episodes of seven different gongs, four different woodblocks (including a plywood box that I would call a contrabass woodblock), a bowed crotale, and bowed vibraphone, with a cadenza for several different drums including rototoms (tunable microtimpani), and black mallets. Devachan ended much as it began, with alto flute in low singing register, plus a metal windchime. This dolcissimo flourish ended the evening.

Sarah Brady (flute, picc, alto fl), Alexis Lanz (clarinet, bass cl), Heather Braun (violin), Christopher Oldfather (piano) also brought complete confidence, and Hoose maintained his usual radiant authority, full manual control without a stick. Collage’s April 21st concert will conclude his 32 years as Artistic Director.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Sirs,
    I am glad to have received this publication sent to me by Dr. Buonanno. It is very important to me, living in Brasil, to read and follow the recent news about Collage and the production of contemporary music. Congratulations to composers, conductor, music director, board of Trustees and the musicologist Mark DeVoto!
    Regards,
    Alda

    Comment by Alda de Jesus Oliveira — February 23, 2024 at 1:51 am

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