The 2007 Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at the New England Conservatory closed on Saturday with the annual students' marathon concert, impishly dubbed the "Sick Puppy Iditarod" by artistic director Stephen Drury. Though not quite as long as its namesake, the 28-work, six-and-a-half - hour trek traversed a fair portion of the new-music landscape.
Any anthology this size invites blanket statements, and the program seemed to evince a certain caution among the current avant-garde vis-à-vis their trailblazing ancestors: The oldest pieces made the strongest impact, going all the way back to Charles Ives' s 1911 "Waltz-Rondo," a charmingly mercurial multi-layered pianistic jumble, played by Elaine Rombola with a sturdy Yankee industry the composer would have endorsed.
Pianist Emanuele Torquati found the vibrant dramatic thread in the fragmented rhetoric of Olivier Messiaen's "Le courlis cendré," the finale of his 1958 "Catalogue d'oiseaux." Mauricio Kagel's 1964 "Match" leavened modernist sounds with theatrical humor, as two cellists (Shirley Hunt and Rachel Arnold) engaged in virtuosic competition, with a percussionist (Davy Anderson) acting as a deadpan, eccentric referee; a snapped string on Hunt's cello (which didn't slow her up a bit) actually enhanced the overall effect.
Morton Feldman's "The King of Denmark" dates from 1965, a barely audible, exquisitely calibrated exhalation for unspecified percussion, dispatched with choreographic grace by Anderson on a closet's worth of instruments. And Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1960 "Kontakte" for tape, piano, and percussion, with its stiff jabs of violent dissonance and the rough-hewn eeriness of its primitive electronic sounds, still packs a formidable aesthetic wallop: Percussionist John Andress and pianist Minji Noh (tasked with an extra percussive array of her own) were equal to the work's unrelenting, uncompromising grandeur.
A handful of pieces from attendees of SICPP's Composition Workshop didn't approach Stockhausen's scope and ambition but showed impressively deft skill; a couple were particularly compelling. Dave Hollinden's "Flux" (a world premiere), for three winds and marimba, opened with hazy phrases that clashed diatonically but soon juxtaposed obsessive, piercing, irregular chords, punctuated by a honking saxophone. Marco Visconti-Prasca's violin-cello-piano trio "Ulrich" energetically discoursed in a vocabulary that, while hinting at both café jazz and Messiaen-like refraction, was idiosyncratically original.
Works by SICPP's composer-in-residence, Berlin-based Walter Zimmermann, wove unexpected sounds into ambiguous rituals. In his "Erde-Wasser-Luft-Töne," Brandon Newbould's trombone and Hester Ham's piano, dampened to a tense pizzicato with putty and blankets on the strings, deployed an implacable, insistent martial tattoo entwined with mesmeric tones that Eric Retterer coaxed from water-filled wineglasses -- a distinctly non pastoral interpretation of the natural elements referred to in the title.
The wide-ranging program yielded surprisingly few duds, though even an absolutely committed, heroically still performance by pianist Danny Holt couldn't save Markus Trunk's self-indulgently sparse "Leaflet" from its own crushing boredom. That was a rare exception; the performers, too many to mention, were excellent overall. The full cohort took up posts around Brown Hall for the evening's finale, Michael Finnissy's hymn-based group improvisation "Post-Christian Survival Kit," bringing home the week's adventure with noble, valedictory chaos.