Arthur Berger (1912-2003), the theorist and educator (who taught at Juilliard, Brandeis, and the New England Conservatory), cofounder of the influential journal Perspectives of New Music (who regretted the title's syntactically suspect preposition), and critical advocate of musical modernism (who was once sued for a bad review), was a composer first and foremost. Keeping his music alive was the goal of the first Arthur Berger Memorial Concert at NEC's Jordan Hall on Tuesday.
Berger was initially regarded as a follower of the neoclassical Stravinsky; the concert opened with two such works that nevertheless showed a decided American streak. In a four-hand piano "Suite" arranged from 1940s pieces, diatonic pile-ups and off-balance accents ride a steady underlying rhythmic grid; the 1941 "Quartet in C Major" for winds alternates Haydnesque paragraphs with jazzy, bluesy excursions.
Berger later turned to serialism and atonality. The bright, pointillistic 1966 "Septet" dovetails sharp, spiky motives; similar gestures are smeared into dark, thick, drones in the 1984 "Wind Quintet." Within the profoundly complex dialect of the 1979 "Five Settings of European Poets," Berger incisively varies the texture and dramatic tone for each song: granite clarions for a Latin proclamation of love by Horace, the voice vaulting over lush harmonies in a Rilke sonnet, daubs of piano color behind a bittersweet, melodically lyrical Paul Valéry poem.
The "Five Settings" were given a sure, superb performance by tenor Charles Blandy and pianist Rodney Lister; Lister and David Kopp ably shared the keyboard in the "Suite." In the other works, student groups sometimes missed the forest for the trees - always a danger in music of such precise detail - but their playing was secure and expressively shaded.
Music by friends and colleagues filled out the program. Flautist Ona Jonaityte and pianist Aivas Buodziutas played John Heiss's eloquently ruminating "Soliloquy" with sentient flair. Lister conducted two of his "Four Songs From Delmore Schwartz": Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Stein declaimed angular arioso over - and sometimes, balance-wise, under - intricately layered, atmospheric ambiguity from piano, viola, and clarinet. The evening closed with Michael Gandolfi's "As Above," for chamber orchestra; originally accompanied by video, it was inventive fun on its own, pulsing and shimmering like a post-minimalist remix of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."
The program order had a compartmentalized, stop-and-go feel; juxtaposing tonal and atonal might have illuminated Berger's musical personality more than segregating them did. But the hearing was welcome. Stylistically, Berger may have traced multiple branches of 20th-century music history, but his rigor and polish remain timeless.