"The New Romanticism" has been a popular topic in musical conversations for a number of years now, but it is a slippery term, difficult to define. Monday night's concert by the Contemporary Music Forum, "A Look at the New Romanticism," should have cleared things up a bit. But despite a preconcert lecture by Frances McKay and a series of exciting and committed performances of compositions whose diverse styles are presumably encompassed by the term, its meaning remains as elusive as ever.
Kartik Seshadri's "Quartet for a Raga," which opened the program, was evidently considered New Romantic on the basis of the mildly exotic Indian elements incorporated into its structure. But severely serial composers like Pierre Boulez have been using Indonesian gamelan techniques for decades with no one picking up the scent of romanticism. Scored for flute, clarinet, cello and vibraphone, Seshadri's quartet was pleasant but rather monotonous, with its unison ostinatos and relentlessly sweet sonorities.
Krzysztof Penderecki's three "Miniatures" for violin and piano date from 1959, when everyone was composing like Webern. They came across in performance (wonderfully played by violinist Helmut Braunlich and pianist Barbro Dahlman) as coloristic exercises shamelessly imitative of Webern's "Four Pieces for Violin and Piano," works composed in violent reaction against romanticism.
Ravel's great "Chansons made'casses" followed. Soprano Pamela Jordan's restrained approach uncovered many beauties, particularly in the outer songs.
Keiko Abe's "Dream of the Cherry Blossoms" was a virtuoso showpiece for solo marimba, and percussionist Randall Eyles had a wonderful time with it. Peter Escher's "Naga-Uta," a wonderfully expressive and skillfully composed setting of Japanese poems for soprano and flute, brought out the best in both of its performers, soprano Jordan and flutist Katherine Hay.
The Forum concluded its program with a tour de force, Joseph Schwantner's ultraflashy "Music of Amber" for six players. Rarely have so many striking and iridescent sounds been generated in a piece that went down so easily. But the work left no really strong impression; its virtues were its special effects, all displayed on the surface.