Composer Capanna in concert: The leopard hasn't changed his spots

The creative contour of Philadelphia composer Robert Capanna looks something like this: He had an early career push from the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in the 1970s, a lower-key period when he was occupied with running Settlement Music School from 1982-2009, and now an apparent rebirth.

But that's not quite what it sounded like in a Friday concert by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society of works written in the last two years.

The event at, yes, Settlement Music School, was packed with a receptive crowd that seemed eager to celebrate Capanna - a sign of the goodwill he has built among composers, musicians, and audiences over the years.

If my preconcert YouTube tour of Capanna's older works has any credence, any implied rebirth is actually an unbroken continuation of his original post-Bartokian path, and continuing with little acknowledgment of how the classical world has moved on to neo-tonal, post-minimalist idioms. This leopard has not changed his spots, which is not to suggest that he is old hat. The atonality of the 1970s was abandoned rather too hastily in the United States (though not in Europe). Retuning the public's ears to this challenging idiom - especially with ultra-capable Network for New Music musicians, pianist Charles Abramovic and the PRISM Quartet - is a good thing.

Whether Capanna's works heard on Friday make a lasting impact remains an open question. His music is cerebral and personal. The thematic and rhythmic ideas clearly have significance to him, but only intermittently registered as such to this listeners' ears. It's the Ernst Krenek problem (whose ambitious mid-20th century works should grab modern ears more than they do). What Capanna does offer is clarity of dialogue.

His works are fruitfully built on interplay. In the song cycle "What I Know," the singable but not-traditionally lyrical vocal writing served the meaning and rhythm of Capanna's self-authored verse but moved alongside an intriguingly contrasting sphere of instrumental writing. The "Piano Sonata No. 2" reveled in extremes of treble and bass register. Some movements had a bass line walking in a steady tread in a narrow range of pitches - while highly excitable treble writing gyrated overhead.

Only in the most unorthodox piece of all, "Piccolo Concertante for Saxophone Quartet and String Quintet," were there more integrated textures among the seemingly disparate ensembles, made possible through the soft-grain marvels of the Prism Quartet's sax playing. The resulting piece, though, was less engaging than the rest. So, while I wasn't converted to Robert Capanna fandom, future encounters with his music will be greeted with wide-open ears.

dstearns@phillynews.com