Collage New Music shines in new and newish music for sextet

January 19, 2015 at 1:12 pm

By David Wright

David Hoose conducted Collage New Music Sunday night at Pickman Hall.

After attending the concert by Collage New Music Sunday night at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall, one could be forgiven for thinking an ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and percussion was as standard as a string quartet.

Following a brief and hilarious opener for violin and piano (Evan Chambers’s Fire Hose Reel), the contemporary-music ensemble of six instruments plus conductor took the stage four times at full strength, performing music of such variety that one imagined a vast repertoire of mixed-sextet compositions stretching away to the new-music horizon.

Three of the four sextets were receiving their first Boston performances—not a surprise, since groups comprising these six instruments aren’t so thick on the ground after all, and these scores demanded a high level of technical proficiency and musical imagination.  The six veteran players of Collage New Music, conducted by the equally venerable David Hoose, delivered amply on both.

According to his account in the program, composer Chambers found his title printed on fire-department boxes all around Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A little joke—that “fire hose reel” could also be the title of an Irish fiddle tune—grew into a big piece for piano and amplified violin.

Violinist Catherine French and pianist Christopher Oldfather stepped up the tempo several times and cracked innumerable rhythmic jokes as they evoked a party swinging into high gear.  The music seemed ready at any moment to break into an actual Irish reel, only to dance dissonantly away.

The microphone on French’s violin subtly adjusted the balance between the instruments, and probably wasn’t necessary, given this artist’s fiery playing and authentically scrapy fiddle sound.

For Oldfather, it was the first of several technically dazzling outings on this program.  In addition to his many contributions in terms of atmosphere and tone color, the pianist edged out percussionist Craig McNutt for Busiest Player of the Night, if only because his athletic skills were on display in five pieces instead of four.

The Irish theme continued in a different vein with Nicola LeFanu’s Sextet: a wild garden—fásach, surely the winner of the Short Attention Span Award for this evening.  The composer’s estimate of “about a dozen short sections” in the piece seemed conservative as she evoked the “luxuriant growth” in favorite Irish places such as the Roundstone bog and the Connemara coast.

Opening with Debussy-like sunken-cathedral bells on the piano, the picturesque music roamed widely in timbre and mood from deep-toned, whimsical dialogue for cello and bass clarinet to dazzling bursts of high clarinet, vibraphone and piccolo.  As with New England weather, the rule was: If you don’t like what you hear, wait a minute.

If not exactly Irish, Mario Davidovsky’s Flashbacks was at least Joycean in its stream-of-consciousness depiction of the experience of suddenly and randomly remembering music.  In this volatile piece completed in January 1996, the composer, a pioneer in electronic and electro-acoustic media, produced on the all-acoustic sextet something like the beeps, boops, and burbles that came from his synthesizer in other works.

The burbler-in-chief was surely percussionist McNutt, who executed choreography no figure skater could match as he prowled his large array in search of just the right subtle (or not so subtle) accent, changing beaters seemingly every bar, making each of his countless notes materialize at the right time and the right volume.

One wondered how different one’s perception of a percussionist’s playing—not to mention the elaborate architectural project of setting up for the next piece—would be if it were performed out of sight of the audience.  With this instrument, it can (for example) take a lot of activity to make one soft sound, and what you see is often not what you get.

In Sunday’s performances, the live action was so eye-catching, it was hard to close one’s eyes and just listen.  But it was worth doing so for a little while, just to appreciate McNutt’s fine phrasing, color sense, and collaboration with his colleagues.

Kyong Mee Choi’s Tender Spirit I mixed actual electronic sound with the live sextet in a threnody for the children and teachers lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of December 2012.  In the subtle blend, electronic and acoustic sounds mimicked each other, and it was often hard to tell which was which.

The piece opened in a warm glow of long notes with rapid piano and percussion figures running softly underneath, progressed through a wide variety of emotional states and timbres climaxing in a kabuki-like screech of piccolo and whack of woodblocks and snap pizzicato, and closed with a haunting electronic sound resembling children’s voices receding in the distance.

After such melancholy reflections, some affirmation was needed, and Stephen Jaffe’s Light Dances amply supplied it.  Commenting in the program, the composer attributed his title to a saying by the photographer Brian Peterson about his work being “a dance around the light.”  He went on to say, à la Magritte and his “this is not a pipe,” “These are not dances per se.  Instead, the movements reflect dance and light in different ways.”

It was good to be told that, because otherwise one might have sat back and enjoyed Jaffe’s piece as the rambunctious, toe-tapping, Bernsteinian piece of elegant fun it plainly was.

The second of the three movements was playful in a different way, calling on the players to snap their fingers, shuffle their feet, and play suspended crotales in sequence like a handbell choir.  Nostalgia seemed an element here too, as piano-and-strings music curiously like Ravel wafted through the percussion effects.

Jazzy energy and humor à la Milhaud returned in the finale.  With the skill it had shown all evening, the ensemble crisply executed the intricate syncopations, then blended elegantly for the soft close.

Composers Kyong Mee Choi and Stephen Jaffe were present for Sunday’s performance, and came onstage following their pieces to receive the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

Besides the players mentioned above, cellist Joel Moerschel, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Robert Annis, and especially Christopher Krueger on three flutes (alto, standard, piccolo) also made adept and imaginative contributions to all the works for sextet.

Conductor Hoose appeared fully in charge of the proceedings, beating the complex meters and guiding the interpretation in spite of stage lighting that, he told the audience, got in his eyes.  His efforts with the stage manager to get the lighting adjusted caused much merriment among audience and performers as lights flickered on and off all over the house, only to end up the same as before.  It was about the only “same” thing in a vive-la-différence kind of night.

The next concert of Collage New Music will present music of Balch and Festinger, and the world premiere of a new work by Gunther Schuller, 8 p.m. March 1 at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall.

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