CAMBRIDGE -- The music department of Harvard University has reconfigured the annual concert series by the Fromm Players into a mini-festival that will expand rather than duplicate the work of the city's many excellent resident new-music groups.
The first festival was curated by the composer Joshua Fineberg, and the subject of investigation was the evolution of the concerto and the soloist in late 20th-century music.
The classic on Friday's program was one of the milestone works in the career of Elliott Carter: the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras from 1961.
This work has probably been studied and analyzed more often than it has been played (the last local performance was probably the Boston Symphony's of 20 years ago). The Double Concerto made a fitting centerpiece for the program, since it was one of the first pieces commissioned by the foundation created by the generous wine importer and music lover Paul Fromm.
The work brings ingenuity to the point of genius in structure, detail, and interplay of sonority as the two soloists and two orchestras interact, converse, or go their separate ways; it stands at an intersection between pure intellection and pure fantasy. The difficulties of performance (such as the intrinsic imbalance between piano and harpischord) and the rhythmic complexities are matched by comparable difficulties for the listener. But for players of sufficient quality, the difficulties are also exhilarating, and a performance as brilliant as Friday's provides continuous stimulation to mind and ear. The deft and awesomely, fearlessly accurate soloists were Robert Levin (harpsichord) and his wife, Ya-Fei Chuang (piano). Jeffrey Milarsky conducted with authority, with an assist from Fineberg at the end. The chamber orchestra was chock full of first-rate players, many of them soloists in other works during the festival.
Salvatore Sciarrino's "Hermes" for solo flute presents a charged dialogue between two voices of the instrument -- ghostly, otherworldly harmonics attacked, sometimes violently, by the hotblooded fundamental tones.
This was dramatically played by Patrice Bocquillon. Mario Davidovsky's "Synchronism No. 6," a dazzling work for piano (Aleck Karis) and tape, is another charged dialogue, with the piano imitating the challenge of the tape, and the tape extending the possibilities of the piano. Karis's command of sonority and rhythm was extraordinary.
There was nothing to complain of in the performance of Giacinto Scelsi's "Anahit" (1965) by violinist Curtis Macomber and the ensemble, but this was the program's one piece that seemed dated, and its obsession with the queasy microtonal aura around standard pitches left the ear disoriented and the spirit seasick.