CAMBRIDGE -- Pull enough threads in American contemporary music of the last 50 years and you’ll arrive at the Fromm Foundation, which has funded commissions from many of the 20th century’s most distinguished composers. Paul Fromm (1906-1987) was an emigre who fled Nazi Germany and settled in this country, establishing a successful wine importing business in Chicago and, later, a foundation pledged “to restore to the composer his rightful position at the center of musical life.”
That foundation, based at Harvard since 1972, is still quite active, and this week it presented the Fromm Concerts 2007, a pair of contemporary music performances that took place Thursday night and last night at Paine Hall. Boston Modern Orchestra Project hopped over the river to become the Fromm Players, and Harvard composer Julian Anderson took care of programming. Music by the ingenious Dutch composer Louis Andriessen received the most airtime over the two concerts, but I caught only the first program, on which Andriessen’s Zilver was performed along with works by Arthur Berger, Lee Hyla, and John Cage .
As the evening’s first work, Zilver made for a bracing call to order. The work is a gleaming play of contrasts, with an ensemble divided down the middle serving up two incarnations of the same melody, with one group (strings and winds) dispensing slow-moving soft-edged chords, and the other (piano and percussion) firing off tight staccato blasts with a pop-music feel. As the piece develops, the ear is cannily drawn into the escalating tug of war.
Berger’s light-filled Collage III was written in the early ‘90s, but its airy, elegant gestures and well-paced conversational style recalled the composer’s neoclassical approach of previous decades at the same time as it subverted that style with thorny interjections and dissonant asides. Hyla’s rugged and funky Amnesia Variance coursed with energy from the opening chord, with the jangly sonority of the hammer dulcimer dominating the ensemble sound, blending at one point in an ear-catching duet with bass clarinet, one of Hyla’s favorite instruments.
The concert’s entire second half was given over to Cage’s Sixteen Dances of 1951, part of a collaboration with Merce Cunningham . It has nine movements with titles like “Anger,” “Sorrow,” and “Tranquility” and seven related interludes , but the music can easily come across as a series of dissociated gestures strung into a work longer than most Beethoven symphonies. As with other works by Cage, this one brooks no middle road in listener response: You are either happily entranced by its Eastern-influenced aesthetic and its alternative treatment of time, or you find it absolutely stultifying. On the way out, I overheard one audience member say that she had wanted to scream.
The BMOP players and conductor Gil Rose gave performances that were skilled, exacting, and humane. Especially notable was the focus maintained throughout Sixteen Dances, such that one could still detect, from deep within the Cagean vortex, surprising flashes of beauty.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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