Saturday, October 5, 2019

Collectif9 brings its revisionist aesthetic to the Palladium

As if meeting as a committee of the whole, Collectif9 gathers for a portrait.
Adaptation is an old game in the art of music, long obscured by the dominant privilege that printed scores enjoy in both scholarly reputation and performance practice. Bach adapted Vivaldi, Stokowski adapted Bach, Handel adapted himself. On and on it goes.

Collectif9 is playing the game anew for the 21st century by reconfiguring classical music for a nine-piece string ensemble (four violins, two violas, two cellos, and double bass). As displayed in a concert Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts, something closer to the music of gypsy ensembles is perhaps the most natural fit for what the Montreal-based group is all about.

Music for that kind of orchestra took up a couple of generous portions of the Palladium program. The folk-derived music, bristling with lively dance rhythms, blended with the classical tradition in the concert finale, an interpretation of Bartok's Romanian Dances, and also in an excerpt from Gyorgy Ligeti's "Romanian Concerto." A living composer with an intense interest in vernacular styles was represented twice: Osvaldo Golijov's "Tancas Serradas a Muru" ("Walls Are Encircling the Land"), from "Ayre," uses a trenchant Sardinian protest song as a basis for a performance that included vocalism from members of the group in addition to well-coordinated playing. "You have exhausted the people's patience," the text warns the island's barons.

The group's capability in more soft-spoken music was never in doubt, as the balance and feeling for pastel colors the nine musicians imparted to Debussy's "Nuages" made evident.   The restraint, this time undergirded with apt tension, was also evident in an arrangement of "The Sacrifice" from Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." This was succeeded, somewhat incongruously (though demonstrative of Collectif9's ability to turn on a dime) by "Little Black Book," an edgy caprice by electronic composer JLin of Gary, Indiana.

Collectif9's love of nuance in near-miniature form bookended the program. The opening work was "Spheres" by Gabriel Prokofiev; the encore was "Sepia Fragments" by the Canadian composer Derek Charke. All along the way, however, the shared explanations and introductions from the stage were inconsistently clear and informative. Since the program departed substantially from the listed works, this was a disappointing feature in a performance distinguished by Collectif9's obvious inclination to establish rapport with the audience.

Bach's "St. John Passion" and Purcell's "Fairy Queen" were announced as if we were about to hear the whole of both works, instead of tidy excerpts.  Nonetheless,  I admired the ensemble's handling of the opening chorus of the former piece, with its anguished shadings of dissonance.

The most suitable to Collectif9's heart-on-sleeve expressiveness and its pinpoint accuracy were two excerpts from Gustav Mahler — an abbreviated third movement of Symphony No. 1 in D major, depicting the composer's response to satirical woodcuts by Callot showing forest creatures in a mock-solemn march and titled "The Hunter's Funeral Procession." The contrasting theme (identified as "Slavic-Jewish" by one of Mahler's biographers)  was presented speedily to underline the frisky triumphalism of the animals' celebration; that alteration worked to heighten the music's sardonic spirit.

 The other  Mahler borrowing was the "Farewell" interlude from "Das Lied von der Erde," as nicely balanced and glowing as "Nuages" was in a much different style. All told, it's the cohesiveness of execution and effect that offers a projection of Collectif9's personality. If they could manage talk from the stage more intelligibly and efficiently, these engaging Canadians would have everything going for them to put across their adaptation-focused aesthetic while fully honoring its sources.

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