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Collage puts pieces together masterfully

CAMBRIDGE -- Collage New Music's program Sunday night was mostly a tribute to old masters of new music -- Pierre Boulez, Bernard Rands, and the late Luciano Berio and Donald Sur. But it was amiably introduced by Matthew Van Brink (born 1978), a graduate student at Boston University, and Collage's first-ever composer-in-residence.

Not much music can hold its own against Boulez's epochal "Le marteau sans maitre" ("The Hammer Without a Master"), which he began in 1953, when he was only a couple of years older than Van Brink is now. Collage music director David Hoose wisely chose to introduce it with shorter and mostly lighter works. Sur's "Berceuse," the composer's last completed music, is a lullaby for violin and piano; it is elegant and heartfelt and, like most of Sur's work, not as simple as it seems. It was sensitively played by violinist Catherine French and pianist Donald Berman.

Bernard Rands' ". . .in the receding mist. . ." is also a very elegant piece. Everything comes out of a short melodic line that is also a kind of jigsaw of two baroque musical figures. All three elements enter into a complex interplay before generating and resolving into a much more developed and experienced melodic line. Berio's "O King" is a sound-tapestry in which one of the threads presents the vowels and consonants of the name of Martin Luther King, vocalized atmospherically by soprano Janna Baty, the unforgettably concupiscent heroine of Thomas Ades's "Powder Her Face" at Opera Unlimited last spring.

Van Brink's piece, "Whims and Wisps" (1999), is for a seven-instrument ensemble. It comprises three brief, charming movements, as fleeting, personal, intimate, and offbeat as diary entries, and notated in a jazz idiom. In its bridge between sophisticated contemporary compositional technique and traditional jazz, it sounded like some of John Harbison's music for "The Great Gatsby." The performance was spiffy.

Boulez's half-hour work remains astonishing in its display of paradoxical qualities -- it is in-your-face and elusive; precise and glistening with intricate detail yet perpetually spontaneous in effect; formidably intellectual but furiously sensual.

The point of departure is a group of texts by the Surrealist poet Rene Char which are set for singer (one of them twice), but also probed, though not illustrated, through chameleonic instrumental movements -- each of the nine sections calls for a different combination of instruments. The performance Hoose drew out of the first-class Collage players was assured, lucid, and passionate, and the voluptuous tones of Baty (often singing an octave, or even two, below her usual range) made the poetry feel accessible, the music absolutely erotic.

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