The five composers represented Monday night on the New Music Group program under the Green Umbrella at the Japan America Theatre had a lot in common.
All but one happened to be born in 1938, and the stubborn nonconformist turned out to be only a year younger.
All are resident associates with major American orchestras, thanks to the national Meet-the-Composer project.
All write music that is clever, reasonably accessible, relatively consonant. Forbidding academism seems to have fallen from modish grace.
These five quasi-forty-niners may have been created equal. On this not-exactly-Orwellian occasion, however, some proved more equal than others.
No one, alas, had much to say at the singularly unilluminating panel discussion that preceded the concert. Ara Guzelimian, the Philharmonic moderator, stirred a bland verbal brew that offered no foretastes of the works at hand. The music, once again, was left to speak for itself.
It spoke fitfully.
The best came first, with William Bolcom's Second Sonata for violin and piano (1978). In this quartet of sly little duets, the fiddle often soared in one direction while the keyboard danced in another. Somehow, the two voices always sustained a quirky sense of balance in the bitonal process, however, and they always met at the cadences--if there were cadences.
Sometimes, Bolcom merely stopped naughtily but nicely in mid-meander and took up a new idea. Often as not, the idea hinted at funky jazz impulses--all dressed up in this context of spiffy art-music. The stylistic homage became perfectly clear in the finale, an almost ethereal act of homage to Joe Venuti.
Judith Mass played the violin very sweetly. Bolcom provided a jaunty counterforce at the piano.
John Harbison, the local host, offered a delicate companion piece, of sorts, with his "Twilight Music" (1985). This is a rather spare, somber, even elegiac exercise for unequals. A small, light and reticent violin carries on a strange but beautiful relationship with a big, dark and pompous horn while a piano rumbles cohesive filler. When it works, it is wonderful.
Mark Baranov was the sensitive violinist, William Lane the suave horn soloist, Zita Carno the passionate pianist.
The rest of the program seemed less inspired.
In "Spinoff" (1983), Charles Wuorinen offered a complex sonic collage in which frantic conga drums (played by Raynor Carroll) overpowered some busywork for violin (Barry Socher) and string bass (Dennis Trembly). The natives, though virtuosic, sounded restless.
In "Yerusha" for clarinet and seven players (a world premiere), David Stock tried to mix the ethnic cliches of Klezmer music with lofty liturgical quotations with bluesy laments with jazzy ingredients with serious formal structures. The mix was uneasy.
There is a lot of raucous snap, crackle and popping here, along with a dreary-drony slow section and a bravura cadenza. Isolated effects intrigue, but the whole certainly is not greater than the disparate parts. Michele Zukovsky, the noble soloist, bravely impersonated the tootler on the roof.
The evening closed with Joan Tower's "Black Topaz" (1976), 13 minutes of incoherent but often interesting shifts in texture, focus and bombast. The tiny motivic ripples created nice doodling effects, even when they refused to go anywhere. The affectionate pounding references to Stravinsky's "Sacre" provided a less than organic climax. Zita Carno, supported by a fine Philharmonic ensemble of six, served authoritatively as the chief pounder.
After the concert, the sparse audience in the 840-seat hall celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Orchestra Residencies Program with a birthday cake. Whoopee.