Harbison premiere marks Collage New Music’s 50th anniversary in style

October 17, 2022 at 10:03 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Collage New Music presented the world premiere of John Harbison’s Winter Journey (chamber version) on Sunday. Photo; Julian Bullitt

‘Twas the weekend for golden jubilees. On Saturday, Boston Baroque opened its 50th anniversary season. And, on Sunday night at MIT’s Killian Hall, Collage New Music followed suit in marking its own semi-centennial. The group’s compact program mostly celebrated the present—the evening featured three world premieres—but it was also periodically, and surprisingly, reflective.

That was most powerfully true of John Harbison’s Winter Journey. Setting three elegiac poems from Louise Glück’s Winter Recipes from the Collective, this song cycle includes among its themes illness and leave-taking—not exactly the stuff of a festive occasion.

Yet Harbison, who has been affiliated with CNM nearly since its inception, isn’t one to take an unnecessarily maudlin view of such subject matter. Indeed, one of the most striking features of Winter Journey is the utterly natural flow of its vocal line: not once does the setting linger unduly over a moment or a scene (like “Afternoon and Early Evenings’” reminiscence of a visit by two sisters to a restaurant).

Rather, the 20-minute score proceeds with a rhythmic and literary imperativeness, one that’s enhanced by Harbison’s deft handling of his motivic materials. Occasionally, as in the opening “Poem’s” references to “where the wind is taking us,” this involves moments of flurrying text-painting. More often, though, it is subtler: like the finale’s transformation of a pulsing ostinato figure into a gently leaping lyrical line. Either way, this is music of technical mastery and expressive nuance.

Those qualities emerged amply in Sunday’s performance, which marked the premiere of the version of Winter Journey for soprano and chamber ensemble (another edition, for voice and piano, was unveiled last month in Wisconsin). Kendra Colton sang her part with warmth, fervor, and excellent diction. The instrumentalists threatened to cover her at a few points, but for the most part David Hoose led an accompaniment that was tonally rich, limber, and, ultimately, well-balanced.

Much the same could be said of the group’s reading of David Froom’s Fantasy Dances. Composed in 2000, this is a score whose three movements seek to bridge the gap between “classical” and “popular” musical forms, both modern and ancient. Accordingly, the Dances’ outer movements allude to jazz and bebop while the “Ritual Dance” acknowledges the comforts provided by shared customs.

Repetition and pulses, fast and slow, figure in each movement. CNM ably highlighted the edgy, playful character of the refrains in the opening “Stomp” and concluding “Jump.” In between, the dissonant tattoos underlying the mournful melodic writing in the middle movement provided the larger score its emotional locus.

A similar tripartite formal scheme underlay Luke Blackburn’s Concrete Currents for oboe and ensemble. One of the night’s other premieres, the piece comes replete with a convoluted program note about fish and man-made dams.

The music’s ten-minute duration doesn’t warrant such verbosity. What’s more, extraneous allusions only distracted from Blackburn’s solid musical arguments.

Concrete Currents’ concept is simple enough. Swirling scalar figures (descending in the first movement, ascending in the third) and dense textures—aggressive ones, too, in the finale—mark the music’s outer sections. In between comes a gorgeous, floating slow movement.

On Sunday night, oboist Peggy Pearson etched the latter’s mellifluous falling lines with glowing warmth. While her first-movement efforts were often swallowed up in the ensemble’s busy peregrinations, her execution of the finale’s fast, upward-drifting scales were bright and nimble.

CNM dug into Blackburn’s vigorous writing—the dry-toned start to the first movement and the Harmonium-esque transition into the finale were particularly well done, But it was the haunting middle section, with threatening tam-tam strokes and glinting piano/harp figurations countering drifting chord progressions that lingered most in the memory.

Rounding out the night was the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s Bebop Riddle II. By turns an homage to J. S. Bach, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Mingus, and others, it is music of impishness and style.

As played on Sunday by marimbaist Robert Schulz and pianist Christopher Oldfather, Bebop’s abstracted, conversational elements emerged strongly. But it was the players’ elucidation of the score’s rich play of colors (often, the marimba sounded like a radiant extension of the keyboard) that ensured the piece didn’t devolve into a merely brilliant, mechanical exercise.

Collage New Music plays music by Scott Lindroth, Joan Tower, Marjorie Merryman, and Rodney Lister 8 p.m. January 15, 2023 at Killian Hall. collagenewmusic.org

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