The Frenchman Edgard Varese came to the United States in 1915 and became a leader of the American avant-garde for most of the next 50 years. The Boston Musica Viva paid tribute to Varese Saturday night, not just by playing two of his works, but also by surrounding them with music by others whom Varese introduced in concerts by the International Composers Guild during the organization's lively and significant six-year history.
Richard Pittman, Boston Musica Viva's music director, could have chosen major and familiar works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Hindemith, and others Varese promoted, but he chose the more interesting path of programming worthwhile music that has been little heard since Varese's day. Two attractive light works were a tiny suite of cheeky dances by Erik Satie and another tuneful little suite by Alfredo Casella, ''Pupazzetti." Casella's season as conductor of the Boston Pops was so unsuccessful that the management turned to the young Arthur Fiedler as a successor, but ''Pupazzetti" sounds like a terrific Pops piece.
The two vocal works were Carl Ruggles's highly individual ''Vox Clamans in Deserto," hewn from Vermont granite, and Ottorini Respighi's ''Deita Silvane," a five-scoop ice-cream sundae with whipped cream and marshmallow. Soprano Elizabeth Keusch sang the Ruggles songs with admirable definition and brought secure musicianship to the Respighi, although neither her timbre nor her delivery of the text sounded sufficiently Italianate.
''Preambule et Jeux" by Carlos Salzedo, cofounder with Varese of the Guild, sounds like discarded chips from Debussy's workbench, but harpist Anna Reinersman played it with assurance. Varese's disciple and executor Chou Wen-Chung was represented by ''Windswept Peaks," a work Musica Viva introduced in 1990. This quartet is actually a double duo and seeks to emulate the processes of Chinese calligraphy in pressure, direction, continuity, speed, and viscosity. The piece is strong in idea and vigorous in progress, but it took awfully long to say what it wanted to -- a point reinforced by the two Varese works on the program, ''Density 21.5" (for solo flute) and ''Octandre." All of Varese's music makes a complex, implicative proclamation, then stops -- it's like first-class poster art.
This was a big, expensive concert. Alicia DiDonato played Varese's flute piece with distinction, and 17 other first-class new-music players, in various configurations, really delivered the goods for Pittman, who led with authority and missionary zeal.