If you’re aware of the composer Irving Fine, chances are it’s because of his three songs from “Alice in Wonderland,” frequently sung by amateur choruses and among his best-known works. They’re not his most important, as the Library of Congress sought to demonstrate in a five-day festival celebrating the centenary of this 20th-century American composer in music, lectures, and symposia — a festival that (after Friday’s outing by the Chiara Quartet) concluded Saturday night with the Clare College, Cambridge choir singing, among other things, those three “Alice” songs.
Fine died suddenly in 1962, at age 47, not long after finishing the symphony that arguably has a better claim to the “most important” label. The degree to which an early death contributed to his relative neglect is debatable — not because his work isn’t good, but simply because the music world largely tends to disregard the midcentury American neo-classical-dabbling-in-serialism school of which he was a part.
He was a contemporary of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, both of whom are well if somewhat unevenly remembered (Bernstein’s ubiquitous “Chichester Psalms” were included on the Clare choir’s program Saturday night). But Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger and even Lukas Foss are not well-represented on concert programs these days, to say nothing of other worthy symphonists of their approximate generation, such as Howard Hanson and William Schuman.
A real reappraisal of Fine’s work would involve an orchestra with, at the very least, performances of the “Toccata Concertante” and that “Symphony 1962”; the Boston Modern Orchestral Project offered such a concert in May. But the Library of Congress, which holds Fine’s archive, and the Irving Fine Society did their best to present a range of work.
Since they didn’t have the resources to demonstrate Fine’s strengths as an orchestral composer, it was left to the Clare chorus to show the power of his choral writing, particularly in “The Hour-Glass,” a cycle of rich settings of poems by Ben Jonson. Now, he pulled individual voices out of the texture of the chorus, caroming off each other like popcorn (“O know to end, as to begin”); now, he thrust the massed voices outward with ferocious intensity (“Against Jealousy”) or, even more effectively in that same piece, juxtaposed a soaring melody with the same texts sung in tones of furtive threat — a reinterpretation of each line that illustrated jealousy’s toxic aftereffects.
It helped to have such a good chorus: The young singers moved crisply and adroitly through a packed program that, in addition to the Fine sets and the Bernstein, included Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” the “Nisi Dominus” from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and three Christmas-y works including, just by the by, Schoenberg’s big, difficult, late-Romantic “Friede auf Erden.”
Graham Ross, the group’s director, capitalizes on youthful energy with brisk tempi, and lets his singers be themselves; there was no attempt to evoke the white purity of a boy’s choir in the colorful, feminine sound of the sopranos and altos in “A Ceremony of Carols.” (The countertenor Mark Williams, however, was stunning in the “Chichester Psalms.”)
The chorus finished the evening with the Schoenberg, the hardest thing on the program, and a small world unto itself, sung as if it were no particular hurdle.
The “Alice” songs are as much a guilty pleasure as a highlight. It’s hard not to smile when the chorus plunges into the third of them, “You are old, Father William,” with its exuberant entrance. There’s no doubt that “The Hour-Glass” is a more solid legacy, but not, perhaps, a more beloved one.