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Music Review

Fromm concert at Harvard looks back

Jeffrey Means conducts “Shimmer Songs” at Harvard University on Friday.MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

CAMBRIDGE — “I am convinced that our century will eventually prove to be one of the great musical centuries,” wrote the new music patron Paul Fromm in 1979. “If we choose to ignore what is happening in our midst, it is exclusively our loss.”

Fromm, a German-born wine importer who settled in Chicago, put his money where his convictions were. Since 1952, the Fromm Music Foundation has commissioned more than 300 pieces from an amazingly catholic array of 20th- and 21st-century composers. Since 1972 it has been based at Harvard, and over the weekend the foundation threw itself a sort of belated 60th-birthday party in the form of a two-concert series, with the superb new-music sinfonietta Sound Icon playing a cross-section of Fromm commissions.


Most Fromm concerts mix older and newer works, but on Friday the historical pull felt especially strong, with three of the four works having been written in the foundation’s first two decades. The one piece from this century was the opener, “Shimmer Songs” (2006), by the Australian-born composer Liza Lim. The title comes from an aboriginal technique of cross-hatching over the surface of a painting, said to produce unusual light qualities. In Lim’s piece, three independent elements — a string quartet, harp, and percussion — intersect in ways that create a series of abrasive, constantly shifting textures. The transformations come quickly, almost too quickly for the ears to process, but there is an uneasy beauty in the timbres that emerge.

In “Circles” (1960), Luciano Berio sets in motion a playful dance among soprano, harp, and percussion, wherein the voice, instrumental sounds, and text (from three poems by e.e. cummings) reflect and imitate one another in uncanny ways. The soprano is required to use what were then unusual vocal techniques — speaking, whispering, dramatic color changes in the middle of a word. For all the labor it requires, the piece comes off as amazingly fluent and continuous. The four performers played without a conductor; Jennifer Ashe was the excellent soprano.


Leon Kirchner’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds and Percussion (1960) was in some ways the program’s most conventional work. With its swarm of intricate melodies and clear delineation
between foreground and background, it sounded almost like a specimen of late Romanticism. But there was also a strong contrapuntal drive that added an acidic grit to its palette. Violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Robert Mayes were the superb soloists.

The concert saved the best for last: Bruno Maderna’s “Giardino Religioso” (1972), in which a large ensemble moved fluidly between mystery and chaos, strict notation and aleatoricism, clarity and haze. Even within the small confines of Paine Hall, a vast sense of space was created. Here was proof, were it needed, of how much sheer beauty lies in the music of our time.

Sound Icon’s performances were all vibrant and confident, as was Jeffrey Means’s conducting in three works.

David Weininger can be reached at