Collage New Music Ensemble

Walking onstage in business suits, the Collage New Music Ensemble performed advanced 20th century literature as if it were “business as usual.” A medium-sized audience in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall witnessed a remarkable concert of 20th century works last Sunday afternoon.

The Collage New Music Ensemble, which has been performing for 30 years, is world-renowned for commissioning and premiering new works. Founded by percussionist Frank Epstein, it is currently directed by David Hoose, who took over the position in 1991. The group is composed of Boston Symphony musicians and freelancers.

The first work on the concert was Stephen Hartke’s Gradus, written in 1999 for the anniversary of Parnassus, another music group. Hoose turned this concert into an informative lecture, beginning every piece with a brief introduction to the musical elements the audience was about to hear. Although the information was interesting, it might have been more effective if presented in a preconcert discussion format, as it is likely that many in the audience simply wanted to hear the music before hearing it explained.

Hartke’s work featured an interweaving hocket accompaniment which made the bass clarinet, violin, cello and bass sound like a percussion kit. Over this activity was a vibrant, virtuosic riff in the violin. Hoose gave the apt comparison of the violin writing to that of Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat.” The middle portion of the work contrasted greatly with what came before, featuring tightly-knit harmonies and slow harmonic motion. The end of the piece returned to the beginning, wrapping up a strong and diverse work.

Unfortunately, the performance felt dispassionate. While Hoose seemed to convey a certain amount of energy in his conducting, the performers looked bored (I even caught a few checking their watches later in the program). The violinist Ronan Lefkowitz played virtuosic lines with little effort, and in fact every member of the ensemble demonstrated, at one time or another, their technical facility, but the jazz-influenced melodic lines were unemotional and mechanic, as though Collage was simply going through the motions.

The next work on the program was Andrew Imbrie’s Earplay Fantasy, written in 1995 for the Pierrot ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, plus percussionist on toms, vibraphone, marimba, and various sizes of cymbal.

The first movement featured obtuse, angular accompaniment figures over a very slow melodic line. The musical effect was exciting, but again, the ensemble did not seem particularly interested. The second movement was what Hoose described as an “uncoordinated scherzo” in uneven meter. Opening with a dialogue between the ensemble and the toms, it featured extremely tasteful piccolo playing by Christopher Krueger. The angularity was transferred to the melodic lines, accompanied by rapid rising and descending arpeggios in the clarinet and piano.

The third movement was a chorale led by the flute in a homophonic texture. The opening harmonies were coloristic and smooth, and played extraordinarily accurately. Later, the movement was marked by splashes of color in the vibraphone and a particularly animated duet between vibraphonist Craig McNutt and pianist Christopher Oldfather. An exciting “roller-coaster ride” featuring long soaring melodies characterized the last movement. Placed against an agitated and active background, it vaguely incorporated moments from earlier movements to wrap up the work with a splendid finish.

After a brief intermission, Collage presented Arnold Schoenberg’s famous (or infamous) Pierrot Lunaire of 1912, featuring mezzo-soprano Janice Felty. This work, Hoose argued, is one of the two most revolutionary pieces of music in the 20th century (the other being Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring), and one which pioneered the combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, establishing it as a new chamber ensemble. While not a serial work, Schoenberg calls for various extended techniques, most uniquely a distinct manner of vocal writing called Sprechstimme in which the vocal line is spoken in pitch instead of sung. The effect is intense when coupled with the complex and active writing of the accompaniment parts. The work sets the text, translated to German, of poet Albert Giraud.

Felty’s performance was inspiring and energetic, but, as previously mentioned, the rest of the ensemble did not seem to pick up on that energy. The playing was accurate but artificial, failing to be anything but a background to Felty’s impassioned performance.

Nevertheless, the performance was enjoyable. The Valse de Chopin was suitably overbearing, and Der kranke Mond showed Krueger’s excellent control even in the lower registers of the flute. Nacht was appropriately dark, and as we descended into the meaty parts of Pierrot the music became particularly gruesome, and the performance certainly matched the intensity of the words. It was easy enough to realize why this music would cause such a stir – between the explicitly grotesque words and the exotic, overbearing music, audiences must not have known what to expect.

Toward the end of Pierrot, the ensemble seemed to lose steam, and mistakes became more and more apparent. Overall, however, the rendition of Schoenberg’s masterpiece was very accurate and precise. A question that occurred to me throughout the performance was whether they really needed a conductor for much of the music. Especially in Pierrot, Hoose’s clear conducting seemed superfluous. If anything, he may have gotten in the way of developing a clear sense of ensemble performance.

Although it seemed many in the audience didn’t know quite what to expect, they were rewarded with an excellent, if somewhat uninspired, performance of 20th century music.