in: Reviews

January 31, 2011

Dino’s Joyful Mash-up

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“Joyful, Youthful” was the title of the Dinosaur Annex’s offerings at the Goethe Institut-Boston on January 30th, being Dino’s “yearly concert featuring works by talented young composers on the cusp of professional life.” The program certainly lived up to this title. Co-Artistic Director and flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin announced it would be dedicated to the memory of composer, teacher, and guru of vast wit and learning, Milton Babbitt, who died on January 29. He was a close advisor and participant in the activities of the Dinosaur Annex since its founding in 1975.

Guest artist Yukiko Shimazaki, a young free-lance pianist, played a major role in the concert as the accompanist for all three of the works before intermission, and she and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School student Julian Drummond shared the piano in the last work on the program, by Peter Van Zandt Lane. An enthusiastic and sympathetic performer of new and difficult music, Shimazaki is note-perfect and sensitive to the collaborative effort, but perhaps because the piano lid was slightly raised, her accompaniments were generally too loud and over-pedaled, except in Lane’s larger ensemble.

The pieces by the two youngest composers, both born in 1989, came first. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Three Scarlet Moods (2006) for clarinet (Diane Heffner) and piano comprised three mellow movements with very little dissonance. “Shades of Red,” with its slow tactus, in which the clarinet continually alternated high and low pitches — with which Heffner was spot on — was sonorous, the piano accompanying the clarinet with little other interaction. The “Tango” was also slow, mostly in tango rhythm, with nice noodles from Heffner and a solo cadenza. “Redlight” suggested traffic, vignettes of stop and go. The next composition, Stephen Feigenbaum’s Tread (2009), for viola (Ann Black) and piano, a Boston première, played with repeated notes that were buried in different harmonies and jagged rhythms, yet sweetly resolving dissonances, ending in an open cadence on the fifth.  Black’s performance was, as always, superb.

Michael Djupstrom’s Walimai (2005) for clarinet and piano, also a Boston première, was inspired by a short story of that title by Isabel Allende in her collection, Cuentos de Eva Luna (published in Barcelona in 1989), about a tribesman living deep in the rainforest. It is atmospheric — beginning very softly and nebulously, rising to raging dissonances, softening at the end — and extremely difficult to perform. Heffner tapped her foot to the slow tactus and exhibited amazing dexterity and breath control, especially for the tough requirements at the end.

The second half of the program opened with another Boston première, by the oldest composer of the evening, Du Yun, who was born in 1977. She is a member of the Composition faculty at SUNY Purchase. Her morsel.eroding (2003) is a musical Haiku for bass and E-flat clarinets and tam-tam. (Geezers of a certain age refer to this instrument as “the J. Arthur Rank.”) Katherine V. Matasey and Robert Schulz were the amazing performers, seemingly effortlessly shifting among the special techniques required. In particular, Matasey’s facile sliding, not only into variable pitches but into multiple octaves, was remarkable. Schulz was not required to strike the tam-tam but rather to play on it with various brushes and wires, with which he was able to make lovely phrases. Like a haiku, the piece appeared in relatively short sections that just were — they didn’t need to “go” anywhere.

Every composer at some point is drawn toward writing music for a solo instrument, either because such a piece is requested by a colleague or a student or because the task presents a particular challenge or set of problems that the composer wants to solve. Clint Needham’s Viola Music (2004), also a Boston première, was performed with grace and confidence by Anne Black. There are three movements: “Perpetual Motion & [long] Cadenza”;  “Song,” which doesn’t sound very much like one with its wide intervals and some long silences; and “Scherzo,” full of rhythmic drive, lots of double-stops burbling like a waterfall one after the other, and a rather frantic ending.

As the last work, the program featured a world première of a work for the ensemble’s core musicians, flutist Hershman-Tcherepnin, clarinetist Matasy, percussionist Schulz, violist Black, cellist Michael Curry, and Yu-Hui Chang, Co-Artistic Director, and conductor, together with young guest performers flutist Phoebe Reuben, clarinetist Katie Armstrong, and pianists Julian Drummond and Shimazaki. Entitled Beacons, it was commissioned from composer Peter Van Zandt Lane, a doctoral student at Brandeis University who is also Dino’s general manager and a BMInt reviewer. Lane wrote in the program notes that he was fascinated with the idea of students and professionals performing side by side, and hence the instrumentation; only the percussionist and cellist have no partners. The work is divided into three movements, “Daybeacon,” “Relays,” and “Lights,” each with a different character and all having something to do with light on water — one had the sense of being in the presence of color-pictures. All three movements, Lane wrote, were “saturated with imitation,” perhaps in the tradition of Haydn’s piano duet, Il maestro e lo scolare (“the master and the student”), but certainly not as clearly enunciated. According to Lane, the students start out imitating the professionals, but the professionals end up imitating the students. In any case, Chang’s conducting gestures were clear and vigorous, which the ensemble had no trouble following. Lane has a good ear not only for instrumentation, but also for spacing that I have noticed before. This was particularly evident in the slower, more consonant third movement that simply sang as it glittered in the light.

A word about the composers’ notes on their music. All music is created as a response to something — a beautiful sunrise, a poem — the possibilities are endless. But when composers are asked much later to write notes about these pieces, they are often baffled, because they may or may not remember the original impulse, or may have moved off in another direction. Usually they are asked for notes that will help the audience “understand” the music. I try very hard not to read them before a concert, because I want to have the fresh experience of responding only to the music itself. I don’t want to be impelled to judge whether or not the composers met their own expectations, assigned after the fact. That said, I found this particular set of notes fascinating because they revealed such a wide range of germinating ideas. May these young composers go far with them.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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