CAMBRIDGE — Last week’s events in Boston placed an all-too-timely gloss on Sunday night’s Collage New Music concert in Pickman Hall. The second half of the program was devoted to the premiere of Rodney Lister’s “Friendly Fire,” a new song cycle for tenor and large chamber ensemble on the themes of modern warfare, cycles of violence, victims, and perpetrators.
In a pre-concert discussion Lister explained he was originally inspired by the Ken Burns documentary series “The Civil War” and its depiction of that conflict as the first modern war. Through the composer’s choice of poems — by Allen Tate, Herman Melville, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Denise Levertov, Brian Turner, and others — this cycle accordingly links the world of the Confederate dead with more than a century of conflicts that followed, up to and including the Iraq War.
Lister’s treatment of the piece’s central poem — Melville’s “The March Into Virginia” — is a remarkable feat as it takes various well-known Civil War songs, deconstructs them, and assembles original music from the shards. Elsewhere Lister’s settings artfully conjure the distinct worlds of his highly varied texts, with their descriptions of visceral violence, oblique mourning, and distanced contemplation. Denise Levertov’s poem “The Certainty,” for instance, reflects on the ways that modern wars employ both technological and bureaucratic means to disguise ancient truths about war’s misery and agony. By the end of this compact song, as if by conduction, Lister’s music takes on the accumulated heat of the text, boiling over in a series of fierce upward swooping gestures.
The vocal writing throughout remains lucid and direct, and on Sunday the tenor Charles Blandy gave the work an exacting, sympathetic, and elegant performance. Conducting the assembled ensemble, Collage music director David Hoose thoughtfully tended to the work’s many complex textures, and the Collage musicians played with character and commitment.
The evening opened with Catherine French’s compelling performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne for solo violin, a brief and atmospheric study in color and tone. George Edwards’s “The Isle Is Full of Noises” followed, its title taken from Caliban’s brief speech in Act 3 of “The Tempest,” its music — ardent, fractured — a plausible illustration of Shakespeare’s reference to “a thousand twangling instruments.”
Yehudi Wyner’s “Passage I,” written for Collage in 1983, made a welcome contrast. It is a kind of urbanely winking chamber music affectionately woven from the muted harmonies of older American pop traditions but not without a few slyly anachronistic classical touches, as if to pose a playfully Wyner-esque rhetorical question: Why couldn’t Schubert have dreamed of a big band?