Boston Musica Viva's concert on Friday night was aptly titled "Made in Germany." It was the first of two German-themed programs, but the title also had a reflexive ring to it, since the ensemble's own name was , in a way , made in Germany as well. When Richard Pittman founded the group in 1969, he was inspired by the Musica Viva concert series that the German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann founded in Munich in the wake of World War II.
The mission of the original series was to rebuild Germany's musical life, which, like its cities, lay in rubble after the war. Partly thanks to the infamous Nazi hatred of modernism, that progressive tradition in music enjoyed a certain cultural prestige in the post war years and received lavish governmental funding. The political cache of the avant-garde has since faded, but high modernism is still thriving in Germany, more so than just about anywhere else.
Two composers for Friday's concert, York Höller and Wolfgang Rihm, are products of this tradition , and their respective works -- "Ex tempore" (in its East Coast premiere) and "In Frage" (in its US premiere) -- were each highly challenging pieces, fractured in form and severe in style. Of the two, the Rihm made the stronger impression, with its violent interjections, eerie unison passages, and final muted viola solo that suggested a lone voice after great hardship, gasping for expression. The Höller, even after a second reading on the same program, remained more elusive and forbidding.
But by far the evening's highlight was the premiere of "Four Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke," a collection of brief Rilke settings that Boston Musica Viva commissioned from four local composers: Martin Brody, Shirish Korde, Peter Child, and Joseph Schwantner. The poet's lyrical verse apparently proved a generous muse as these were four handsome works of vivid color and individuality.
Brody set the fragment "Muzot: October, 1924" with quivering tremolos, delicately tinted woodwind lines, and a repetition of the final word "Abschied" ("farewell") as if to end with a question mark. Korde's setting of "Moonlit Night" captured the poem's silvery mood through evocative arabesques in the violin and high , undulating vocal writing over pulsating strings. Child's setting of the fragment "You Don't Know Nights of Love?" mirrored its soft sensuality with piano filigree and inventive percussion effects. And the final setting, Schwantner's "Assault Me, Music," departed from the tender mood of what had come before, with more jagged, rhythmically driven instrumental writing and powerfully etched vocal lines.
Elizabeth Keusch was the brave soprano in the difficult Rilke settings, as well as in the early Kurt Weill work "Frauentanz, " singing with a focused tone and sensitive musicianship. The hard-working, versatile ensemble, under Pittman's keen direction, played with precision, relative polish, and poise.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com