Listening for a compositional lineage is like reading a particularly few and tiny tea leaves: The act may well delight, but inevitably you find only evidence to affirm what you already thought to be true. Objectively heard, stylistic links between Vincent Persichetti and his students were hard to discern at Sunday's Network for New Music concert at the Curtis Institute. One significant finding did emerge. Persichetti, the Philadelphia-born Juilliard School professor who died in 1987, was willing to write in a far more dissonant language than his students do today.
The pendulum has swung back toward friendliness since Persichetti. He did have a more lyrical mode of writing, but here, to note the centenary of his birth, they chose his knotty Quintet for Piano and Strings (1954). Though its stern beginning might be off-putting, that music sets the attention mode at high, and through sections differentiated by texture and mood, the piece ends up being shapely and expressive. There's a great payoff at the end - sweet strings with cello pizzicato to signal resolution.
Network could have programed Persichetti's own concerto for English horn and strings, but instead commissioned a new one from his student, Juilliard professor Behzad Ranjbaran. The piece has terrific contrasts: a chasing quality to the second movement that verges on Stravinsky's neoclassicism; a lonesome, pastoral English-horn-only third movement; and great shows of skill for both composer and English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia in a last movement that often has the soloist and strings pursuing different ideas. It was the opening, though, the "Adagio lamentoso," that gripped me most with its quietly troubled air.
Persichetti students Richard Danielpour and Steve Reich were represented by River of Light and Nagoya Marimbas, respectively, proving that apples cannot only fall very far from trees, but also roll off in different directions. Marga Richter, who graduated from Juilliard in 1951 after studying with both Persichetti and William Bergsma, was present to hear her Threnody (2006), which opened with a figure that could have been Brahms. The piece centers on repeated figures that in one guise come across as a thwarted Dies Irae. Violinist Paul Arnold, violist Che-Hung Chen, and cellist John Koen were sometimes challenged, but still conveyed the piece's appealingly strange brew of creepiness and coziness.