On Nov. 5, 1971, at University of Massachusetts Amherst, an unknown contemporary music ensemble called Collage gave its very first performance. The group was the brainchild of an enthusiastic young percussionist named Frank Epstein, who had been bitten by the new music bug as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center during the 1960s, when it was directed by the charismatic polymath Gunther Schuller. Epstein then joined the BSO, and the players on that first program were mostly his colleagues from the orchestra.
That first program featured an eclectic mix of bracing new music by six living composers — among them Mario Davidovsky, George Crumb, Tibor Pusztai, and Ernst Krenek. Pusztai’s work called for complex electronics (and a dancer!), but as Epstein recently reported in a reminiscence, midway through the performance, the system broke down, the electronics began smoking, and the entire thing ground to a halt. Not an auspicious beginning.
But Collage persevered and — some 580 works by some 260 composers later — the group, now a treasured Boston institution, ushered in its 50th season on Sunday night at MIT’s Killian Hall. “We’re astounded to have gotten to this important milestone,” Epstein, now president of its board, wrote in the program.
Appropriately enough, Sunday’s concert, which featured three world premieres and one Boston premiere, placed on view the core components of the Collage ethos: unapologetically ambitious works by living composers performed with manifest devotion and care, at an exceptionally high level of professionalism.
You don’t make it to the half-century mark with anything less.
A new version of Augusta Read Thomas’s “Bebop Riddle II” opened the program. This is a compact, sprightly, jazz-inspired work, here scored as a duo for piano and marimba. It’s a very strong piece, instantly engaging the ear with its taut instrumental dialogue, syncopated rhythms, and the joyful forward-sweeping motion of an Art Tatum rag. It would have been interesting to hear it performed back-to-back with the original version, scored for piano and pizzicato cello, which premiered at Tanglewood this past summer. An informal reference recording of that original version speaks with a particular dynamism in part because the pointed pizzicato and the sharp-edged piano attacks are much closer to each other in timbre than the piano and the marimba. The intimacy brings a different kind of intensity — like a conversation within a family versus one with a neighbor across the fence.
Luke Blackburn’s “Concrete Currents” is a fresh, imaginatively conceived example of what one might call eco-program music — that is, music that dramatizes a story from nature, in this case, the epic journey of anadromous fish (which are born in freshwater, live their lives in saltwater, and swim back upstream to freshwater in order to spawn). The “Concrete” in its title references the man-made obstructions that have consistently impeded this journey and imperiled various species. Scored for a mixed ensemble of winds, strings, percussion, harp, and piano, Blackburn’s work resourcefully evokes this dramatic migration through vivid, kinetic music and sonorities that often take on a silvery sheen suggesting, appropriately enough, the iridescence of fish skin.
David Froom’s three-part “Fantasy Dances” concluded the program. The work, which has received a first-rate recording by the 21st Century Consort on Bridge Records, follows a classic fast-slow-fast layout, its outer movements whirling with visceral energy, its slow middle movement full of long-breathing, wistful melodic lines. The Collage players, led by music director David Hoose with elegance and understated mastery, gave “Fantasy Dances” — and every work on the program — a stellar performance. Sunday’s roster of musicians, some of whose loyalties to Collage date back multiple decades, included Heather Braun (violin), Mary Ferrillo (viola), Jan Müller-Szeraws (cello), Sarah Brady (flute), Peggy Pearson (oboe), Alexis Lanz (clarinet), Krysten Keches (harp), Christopher Oldfather (piano), and Robert Schulz (percussion).
John Harbison’s “Winter Journey,” also receiving its first performance on Sunday, provided the evening’s emotional anchoring and its deepest moments of reflection. The piece is a setting for soprano and chamber ensemble of three remarkable poems by Louise Glück. On their own terms, these Glück texts elliptically present the thoughts and memories of two aging sisters reflecting on themes of beauty and loss. Harbison’s music “listens” to this poetry with an empathy that is profound, and fashions for Glück’s verses a self-enclosed sound world that is somehow both opulent and austere, shorn of excess, divested of vanity, and full of slanting light that is true to what remains.
The work is stunning. Soprano Kendra Colton sang with sensitivity and authenticity. And the Collage players, once more under Hoose’s direction, gave a performance worthy of the occasion.
COLLAGE NEW MUSIC
At MIT’s Killian Hall, Sunday night
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.