On Monday, Collage New Music and its music director, David Hoose, performed old-school modern music of mostly recent vintage and, in their hands, bracing beauty.
British composer Julian Anderson is a recent addition to the Harvard faculty. His episodic "Towards Poetry" (1999) began with evocative gestures that wandered and a fractured waltz tune that became lost in its own fog. But the music eventually found its footing in a vivid riot of folk-inspired juxtapositions. The ending is terrific: A melancholy clarinet nocturne is suddenly extinguished by glassy strings, fluttering woodwinds, and buzzing harp, in an eerie metallic burst.
Martin Brody's "Millennium Sightings," originally commissioned by Collage in 1999, sets apocalyptic texts by medieval mystics: Joachim of Fiore's "Trina Voce" exults, while Abraham Abulafia's "Zechariahu the Deliverer" preaches divine vengeance. Brody's gorgeous music captures the double edge of each vision, the gilded shimmer of the first hiding quiet unease, the fury of the second melting into rapturous stillness. In contrast, Urdu poet Miraji's "Solitude" meditates on the present, while the music surveys repeated gestures and harmonies from timbrally varied angles. The vocal writing is superb; mezzo-soprano Janice Felty sang with clarity and an unflagging commitment to the text.
Next came a world premiere: John Heiss's "Meditations and Arguments," an engaging instrumental dialogue that's a distant cousin of Charles Ives's "The Unanswered Question." Here the interlocutor was Frank Epstein's vibraphone, quietly but insistently provoking the rest of the ensemble. Expertly paced, the layered contrapuntal lines breathe free, but the dramatic thread remains taut. Hints of marches and ragtime pay subtle homage; indeed, the spirit of Ives, rather than hovering benevolently over the piece, descended into the fray to lend appropriate irascibility and, in the vibraphone's final phrase, enigmatic transcendence.
Olly Wilson's "A City Called Heaven," composed in 1989 for Boston Musica Viva, refracts the sounds of vernacular music through a prism of modernist rigor. In the middle, fragments of the title spiritual give way to pent-up tension, while in the outer movements, gestures borrowed from blues and boogie fuel virtuoso dynamos. The results were exhilarating. Hoose led a crack performance, with star turns from pianist Donald Berman and percussionist Craig McNutt. Eschewing a driving beat, Wilson's off-balance rhythms instead kept the players hurtling from one epiphany to the next; the sharp, spiky harmonies distilled from the source material the startling thrill of its own discovery.