What do Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison and Joan Tower have in common? Some people would say not much, others would say quite a lot. One undeniable thing they have in common is their age: all three composers were born in 1938.
Another thing they have in common was a performance here by the Da Capo Chamber Players on Saturday night. But although these three composers share a birth year, the pieces that represented them came from three distinct stages of life: Wuorinen’s was written when he was 24, Tower’s piece was penned at the age of 42, and Harbison’s work was just premiered this past fall, when the composer turned 66.
The program opened with Bearbeitungen über Das Glogauer Liederbuch (1962), Charles Wuorinen’s recomposition of six anonymous works from the late 15th century. In this context, the piece functions as a modernist appetizer, a way of saying See, composers have been writing complex music for centuries. Wuorinen comments in his notes that the complexity of the period (roughly 1460-1480) “contrasts sharply with what came later” — meaning the High Renaissance. Fittingly, twenty years after this piece was written, the postmodern tipping point had arrived, and complexity was dominant no more.
That postmodern point was typified by the concluding work on the program. A signature closer for Da Capo concerts, Joan Tower’s Petroushskates (1980) was written when she was still the founding pianist of the ensemble. The piece is familiar to anyone who has heard much of this group; it’s a pleasantly energetic romp through Stravinskian rhythms and harmonies. In a way, it has a function complementary to Bearbeitungen, reassuring the audience, at the end of a long evening, that even complex music can be fun.
John Harbison’s music has never made much of an impression on me. My reactions have ranged from That wasn’t bad to Didn’t like that much — not the effect most composers are after.
His new work, Songs America Loves to Sing (2004) was a revelation. Based on 10 familiar melodies, the piece is riveting from start to finish (about a 25-minute duration). I confess I was predisposed to dislike the piece, with its cheerleading title and settings of such overdone melodies as Amazing Grace and Happy Birthday. But Harbison’s piece is about much more than the tunes: it’s about children singing around a piano, it’s about immersement in folk traditions, and it’s about a man on the brink of old age remembering, and trying to remember, and forgetting.
Taking its title from his recollection of a volume of songs his family sang together when he was growing up, Songs America Loves to Sing alternates, in approved academic style, between soloistic and canonic settings. The canons are clever in unexpected ways, and many of the solos are suitably virtuosic. All of this may be very impressive from a technical standpoint, but the piece gains its true value from the way in which Harbison has inhabited the material. The powerful gospel rhythms in the piano part of What a Friend We Have in Jesus are shadowed by the rest of the ensemble, playing almost inaudibly throughout in ghostly reverence. Aura Lee features a witty, mensural canon combined with a tribute to Elvis. Contentious canons in diminution dramatize the struggle behind We Shall Overcome. And the Anniversary Song is a touching marriage of melancholy and hope: at the conclusion, strummed strings in the piano blend with harmonicas played by the flutist, clarinetist and violinist, while a wistful fragment of the tune disappears into the highest reaches of the cello.
The concert also featured some pieces by composers who weren’t born in 1938. Best among them was Shulamit Ran’s Mirage from 1990, a work in which flurrying gestures, germinating from an amplified alto flute, coalesce into a heterophonic outpouring of melody.