CAMBRIDGE - Must "new music" always be brand new? Presenting world premieres is naturally a bread-and-butter activity for an ensemble like Collage New Music. But this venerable group, now in its 37th season, also has broader goals in mind: tending reputations and keeping in circulation a substantial body of music by the composers it champions. That means works written yesterday, but also the day before yesterday.
And so it was at Monday's performance in the Longy School's Pickman Hall that four of the five works on the program were composed in the 1990s. Two pieces were by Andrew Imbrie, who died in December 2007 and was an important composer in the Collage pantheon, one of the few in that group who was not based in Boston. Music director David Hoose spoke at length from the stage about Imbrie and his work, praising the way the composer used a modern non-tonal idiom while still maintaining a deep consonance with the forms and expressive grammar of music's past. For Imbrie, the high-modernist dream of stripping away all links to the art form's history was never more than a chimera.
An example of his sympathetic blend of old and new came by way of "Earplay Fantasy," an appealing work in which Imbrie's often astringent language is ladled into clear and familiar vessels with movement titles like Allegro Assai and Adagio. The melodic writing is tart yet lyrically generous both here and also in his "Roethke Songs," which received an eloquent performance by soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Christopher Oldfather.
Narucki, in bright voice, also sang the "Haiku Cycle" of James Yannatos. In the Boston area, Yannatos is best known for his 45 years spent as music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, a position from which he will step down at the end of this season. But Yannatos has also remained a busy composer throughout and this piece from 1994 colorfully knits together a series of eight Haikus into a single elegantly contoured stretch of music. Narucki and the Collage players gave it a vibrant reading.
In Richard Cornell's richly textured work, "The Light of October," the ever-receding sunlight of that fall month becomes a metaphor for musical change. Jacob Druckman's expansive and absorbing three-movement piece "Come Round" had its own ideas about variation, and the way a single set of musical ideas can be observed from six different vantage points, like windows overlooking a single square. The piece also brims with remarkable timbral detail.
Throughout the night, Hoose led the ensemble with his signature blend of unshowy concision and missionary zeal. His dedicated musicians, in addition to Oldfather on piano, were Catherine French (violin), Joel Moerschel (cello), Robert Annis (clarinet), Christopher Krueger (flute), and Craig McNutt (percussion).
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.