The Fromm Music Foundation has been a resident at Harvard for 32 years, commissioning new works and underwriting new-music activity in several venues, including Tanglewood.
Last year, the Foundation decided to consolidate the activities it has sponsored at Harvard into a thematically organized twoconcert festival.
This season's concerts were coordinated by the Australian composer Elliott Gyger, and the theme was "Multiple Voices." Friday night's program of the Fromm Players at Harvard brought early works by Steve Reich and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and midcareer works by Kaija Saariaho (37 when she composed "Grammaire des reves") and Elliott Carter (70 when he wrote "Syringa," but with more than 25 years of active music-making ahead of him).
The great discovery of the program was Maxwell Davies's "Leopardi Fragments," written in 1961 when he was 27. It is a setting of passages from the 19th-century poet Giacomo Leopardi for soprano, alto, winds, brass, cello, and harp.
Written in response to the composer's discovery of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, the music responds vividly and even extravagantly to the texts, which are colored by a chameleonic use of the instruments and set off by instrumental interludes.
There are solos for the singers and two duets. The music was organized with ferocious discipline but comes out as colorful, spontaneous- sounding, and exuberant.
The performance under conductor Jeffrey Milarsky was splendid, and soprano Tony Arnold and the sumptuous alto Julia Bentley proved compatible and complementary.
Most pieces by Carter reveal new dimensions with repeated hearings, but "Syringa" may be the toughest nut he ever left for an audience to crack. The piece presents parallel and simultaneous responses to the Orpheus myth that touch only occasionally in dialogue.
A mezzo quietly sings a setting of a poem of John Ashbery while the bass sings florid settings of Orphic fragments in ancient Greek.
There are balance issues that the performance under Milarsky did not solve, and Mary Nessinger's mezzo failed to intone the Ashbery poem in the natural, understated fashion required, so the ear went to Jan Opalach's sonorously vivid delivery of the Greek.
The piece may be about irreconcilable opposites, but it embodies the difficulties of communication that it seeks to depict.
Saariaho's piece is a pretty and skillful response to the French poetry of Paul Eluard, but it proved impossible to dismiss from memory the remark of a friend about Saariaho's opera "L'amour de loin" -- "I liked it better when it was by Debussy."
This piece, which was nicely sung by Arnold and Bentley and attractively played by a first-class ensemble under Milarsky, rashly recalls Debussy's "Sirenes," which is better.