New England’s Prospect: Auslesen

Paul Fromm. Photo courtesy of Fromm Music Foundation

Paul Fromm. Photo courtesy of Fromm Music Foundation

Sancho spent the afternoon in drawing up certain ordinances relating to the good government of what he fancied the island; and he ordained that there were to be no provision hucksters in the State, and that men might import wine into it from any place they pleased, provided they declared the quarter it came from, so that a price might be put upon it according to its quality, reputation, and the estimation it was held in; and he that watered his wine, or changed the name, was to forfeit his life for it.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote (trans. John Ormsby)

Not surprisingly, Paul Fromm made the production of new music into something resembling the wine business. Born into a German family of winemakers, Fromm came to America after the Nazis took power and became an importer of wine and spirits; by 1952, he was successful enough to launch the foundation that still bears his name, channeling the money he made into the modern music that he loved. He took the same approach to music that he did to wine: cultivate relationships with the producers, invest up front, and endeavor to get the subsequent delivery, whatever the quality of the vintage, into the marketplace.

The Fromm Foundation, founded in 1952, wasn’t the largest source of new-music funding in postwar America, but it was the prototype; scores of composers (including—full disclosure—me, a couple of careers ago) have been the beneficiaries of Fromm money. The Foundation can even claim a few bona fide new-music classics, a handful of which anchored this year’s pair of Fromm concerts at Harvard University. The programs, performed by the Boston ensemble Sound Icon and its conductor, Jeffrey Means, on April 12 and 13, collectively marked the 60th anniversary of the Foundation, which has been based at Harvard since 1972. But they also created a strange sense of warp: a retrospective of a forward-looking endeavor. No fewer than three of the programmed works—Luciano Berio’s Circles, Gunther Schuller’s Tre Invenzione, and Bruno Maderna’s Giardino Religioso—had also been part of the 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, a festival designed to celebrate the Tanglewood Music Center’s 70th anniversary, and, by extension, the Fromm Foundation’s long support of new music at the Center. The Schuller and Maderna works, in fact, had both been composed to mark the Foundation’s 20th anniversary.

Anniversaries within anniversaries, commemorations within commemorations. Even as the concerts did their best to encompass variety, a vague sense of vertiginous insularity was never far away. I suppose that tension, too, was a kind of commemoration: for all Fromm’s insistence on breadth—his shifting of support from Tanglewood’s new-music festival to Aspen’s when he decided the former’s programming was too stubbornly restricted, his cutting ties to Perspectives of New Music over that publication’s excessively academic bent—the Foundation, probably more than any other organization, was responsible for the care and nurture of the late 20th-century American new-music establishment.

On the other hand: holy Christmas, Paul Fromm commissioned some fantastic music. Circles, for instance, a thoroughly avant-garde parley between a soprano (Jennifer Ashe, in this concert, tossing off each sleight-of voice with unperturbed, uncanny precision), two percussionists (Nick Tolle and Mike Williams) and a harp (Franziska Huhn), still dances and stings in “golden swarms,” as in the e. e. cummings poems it sets. Or Leon Kirchner’s 1960 Concerto for violin, cello, 10 winds, and percussion, the ideas more than a little Romantic—long structural lines, full-range melodies, harmonies slipping from one expressive dissonance to another—but the execution done with lean modernist muscle.

The performance of the Kirchner, with violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Robert Mayes as soloists, and Means on the podium, erred on the side of new-music style, everything crisp and exact, rigor more than trajectory. Something of that quality also marked Schuller’s Tre Invenzione, the most redolently retro piece on the programs—pure 70s modernism, all pointillistic angles and tactics, the piano, harpsichord, electric piano, and celesta lined up at the back of Paine Hall’s stage like new cars in a showroom—but also, one suspected, a score more playfully lyrical than the performance let on.  But that approach was pitch-perfect for what might be the greatest of Fromm’s greatest hits, Elliott Carter’s 1961 Double Concerto, given a big, bracing, brawny rendition, harpsichordist Yoko Hagino and pianist Paavali Jumpannen fierce and theatrical, the twin orchestras meticulous and bright.

The newer Fromm Foundation commissions seemed, at times, to feel some need to live up to the confident ambition of those older exemplars; the later works’ stylistic variance was balanced by their common encyclopedic qualities. Liza Lim’s 2006 Shimmer Songs was scaffolded by noisiness, three percussionists (Tolle, Williams, and Robert Schulz) manning batteries of shakers, gourds, temple gongs, and metallically swishing reco-recos to further obscure a string quartet (Diaz, Shaw Pong Liu, Jordan Voelker, and Mayes) whose pitches came already qualified with a host of glissandi, extra-wide vibrato, and col legno effects. Lee Hyla’s 1984 Pre-Pulse Suspended was an 11-player mix of late-modern fragmentation and post-minimalist ostinati, pulsing textures both aggressive and understated circled and regarded from seemingly every possible perspective. Barbara White’s Third Rule of Thumb, from 1999, had that same multiple-angle approach, but this time limited to a percussion quartet (Tolle, Williams, Schulz, and Matt Sharrock) working everything from woodblocks to claves to African drums to metal cans; White’s tangram-like grooves proved both satisfyingly visceral and winningly malleable.

The one premiere of the weekend demonstrated both the Foundation’s penchant for the au courant and the virtues of giving its composers a wide berth. Karola Obermüller’s elusive corridors, for bass clarinet (Michael Norsworthy) and piano (Hagino), had—like just about every other new piece I’ve heard in Boston as of late—a significant electronic component, featuring Obermüller stationed at the MacBook that has become as standard a piece of new-music equipment as any instrument. The electronics initially created an effective but familiar electronic fog of echoes which would coalesce around the instruments themselves and then detach, but, towards the end, Obermüller dialed back the processing to a minimum; with Hagino working the high and low extremes of the keyboard and Norsworthy jabbing in commentary, the music turned surprising and bewitching. Fromm, one suspects, would have enjoyed the return on his investment.

Still, one came away from the concerts with a suspicion that the investment still hasn’t quite paid off. Fromm’s focus on composers created, for a long while, a new-music industry more focused on commissions and premieres than long-term cultivation. Friday’s concert closed with Giardino Religioso, Maderna’s tribute to Fromm’s largesse, but also one of the most startlingly beautiful pieces of music of the past fifty years: a vegetal, overgrown profusion of wonders both expected and aleatoric, 20 players roped into a high-wire act of pervasive gorgeousness. I have now heard the piece twice, and both times were Fromm commemorations; I remain baffled by the work’s rarity outside such a context. The music that Fromm and his foundation brought into being, it seems, now awaits its push into the spotlight, into the common repertoire, into the larger culture. The weekend’s concerts reiterated the evidence that there are pressings that more than deserve it. The best of Fromm’s wine is ready to drink.

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