Claire Sabel reviews last night’s concert at Miller Theatre.

Lerdahl, via Miller Theatre

The work of Fred Lerdahl, the Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition at Columbia, was showcased last night in the second of Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits, a monthly staple of their 2010-11 season. Lerdahl, a Guggenheim fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has also written extensively on music theory, and emerged as an influential figure in new music in the ’70s.

The first half of the concert was composed of two works of about 20 minutes each: Time After Time, performed by notable new music group the Argento Chamber Ensemble, and Third String Quartet, premiering for the first time in New York and performed by the Daedalus Quartet, by whom it was also commissioned. Both pieces shared a tumultuous intensity, respectively described by the composer in his notes to the program (available here) as “explosive” and “turbulent,” and each structured around two central interwoven streams.

The second half focused on the renowned Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who performed the US premiere of an exhilarating work for solo cello, There and Back Again. Navigating “400 years of music in four minutes,” the piece was based on a 17th century cello piece by Giuseppe Colombi, and written as a 50th birthday present for the cellist.

The diversity of these three pieces served as an excellent introduction for the composer to take the stage for a brief conversation with Robert Sirota, president of the Manhattan School of Music, and a former pupil of Lerdahl’s. For an audience member lacking any formal training in musical theory, this was a welcome interlude, and a chance to reflect on a varied and challenging program.

Sirota highlighted the complex eclecticism of Lerdahl’s music, describing it as “kaleidoscopic polyphony of sound.” Discussing his recurrent motif of interweaving patterns that he calls his “spiral forms,” Lerdahl elucidated some of the anatomy of his composition. He gave a broader overview of his intentions, explaining that he always seeks the “right form to go with the right expression.” This was subsequently illustrated in the final piece of the concert, Arches (a world premiere this time!) Performed by Karttunen and the Argento Ensmble, Arches was written as a dialogue between the cello and ensemble, rather than a traditional concerto. Informed by the structure of Gothic cathedrals, the entire piece consisted of arches within arches, tracing individual phrases and across the entire piece.

The most approachable of the four pieces performed, Arches was a very satisfying conclusion to the evening. Lerdahl had described his frustration with the impenetrable theoretical structures of some new music, “systems nobody could hear.” The aim of his compositions was to lay bare his systems in a way that still enabled the listener to appreciate a beautiful surface: “of course my music is complex, but I wanted there to be an access point for any listening. The best music is one that sounds completely natural.” The late pause in the program allowed for reflection on the works already played, and an intimate introduction to the lyrical arcs of the concluding one.

Miller Theater wants you! Tickets for all performances are reduced to $7 for students, and promotions are frequently available for free tickets through the Music Department.