CAMBRIDGE -- East and West were the two threads running through the wide-ranging program that closed Collage New Music's season on Sunday, built around two vocal works by Boston composer Charles Fussell. Under the incisive direction of David Hoose -- and in front of an unusually sparse audience -- Collage made the varied virtuosic demands of each style look easy.
Fussell's chamber opera "The Astronaut's Tale," to a libretto by Jack Larson, was premiered by Collage in 1997; three arias and an instrumental interlude were performed here. The first two excerpts -- letters to a farm-boy-turned-flyboy from his erstwhile girlfriend -- glanced at Coplandesque Americana from around shadowed, quirky corners, but the speech-like settings couldn't make much impact outside the context of the entire opera. The finale, though, is stunning, a paraphrase from the book of Revelation portrayed with dark, flowing gravity that builds to a clustered, ringing ecstasy; the excellent soprano Janet Brown closed the scene with a breathtaking high, quiet fade.
Two other American visions framed Fussell's. Michael Daugherty's "Jackie's Song," a companion piece to his opera "Jackie O," juxtaposed Joel Moerschel's expressionistic cello with cool backdrops recalling Henry Mancini in a film noir mood, and the odd combination worked surprisingly well. Sydney Hodkinson's "Stony Brook Jam" built up atonal fragments into a clangorous, jazzy climax; the final destination, all bright clashes and whiplash rhythms, was a treat, though it took too long to get there.
Flutist Christopher Krueger started and finished Shulamit Ran's "Mirage" with incantatory, Middle Eastern-flavored phrases against burning string harmonics; the rest of the piece worked similar folk-derived intervals and scales into a volcanic, atonal Occidental structure. It was an effective foil to Fussell's lush "Goethe Lieder," a 1988 cycle of songs from the German poet's "West-Eastern Divan," inspired by Persian classical literature. Fussell sets a series of dialogues between an Eastern poet and his cupbearer; the poet, sadly wise with age, is given dignified syllabic lines, while the cupbearer, a symbol of youth, is all impetuous rhythms and ornaments.
Brown brought impulsiveness and coy languor to the latter, while steeling her tone for the hard-won eloquence of the former. Fussell's sumptuous music avoids obvious exoticism, instead opting for rhapsodic romantic gestures that flow with an unpredictable, sometimes jagged flexibility. It's a heady mix.