in: Reviews

September 29, 2011

Dinosaur’s “Dissolving Boundaries” Adds Gems

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In its 37 years of presenting varied concerts of new and recent music, much of it off the mainstream path, Dinosaur Annex has continued to provide an important service to the area. Co-directors Yu-Hui Chang and Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin assembled a thought-provoking and significant concert at Slosberg Auditorium of Brandeis University on September 25, with the theme “Dissolving Boundaries,” an evening that introduced me to some music and composers I was happy to add to my list.

Derek Bermel’s Thracian Sketches was a compelling performance of material drawn from Bulgarian folk songs, rendered on the solo clarinet. It began with an intimate murmur invoking a sepia-toned nostalgia, and built with momentum driven by the intricate dance rhythms; it was performed with complete virtuosic control by Diane Heffner. But I wondered, to what extent was this a transcription of folk material modified for concert hall performance? Bermel acknowledges his sources in the program, but it seems that he is restating, recasting, rebuilding, but seemingly doing very little that is original.

So that is one problem with the “Dissolving Boundaries” theme: the fusion of genres, the “complete integration at an intrinsic level” (as the program explained) is not always successful, or perhaps the boundaries still remain as boundaries – folk music that is still folk music, rather than transformed into something newly composed music for the concert stage.

Similarly with Dance for solo violin by Theo Loevendie, played with vigor by Gabriela Diaz; the foot-stomping and bell-jingling that the soloist was required to do just seemed a distraction from the demanding, intricate violin playing (which provided enough energy on its own).

If I say the piece for toy piano (East Broadway, by Julia Wolfe) was rather silly, I feel like I’m taking some proffered bait. Surely there needed to be some mention of the pre-recorded audio track that was also part of the piece. Donald Berman performed with fervor.

But the rest of my discussion is of three pieces that I found completely moving and memorable (although each in different ways). Barbara Kolb’s Homage to Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton was the oldest piece on the program, from 1976. It is a successful example of an inspiration by another work, an album by the two Jazz greats that included a piece titled “Grow your own.” While cognoscenti know the reference, surely some in the audience need an explanation that “your own” was marijuana. The piece was more thoughtful than dreamy, Kolb’s reflection on Burton and Jarrett’s improvisation, with room for the two performers to add their own improvisatory layer. Hershman-Tcherepnin’s flute tone was a bit breathy in the lower registers, but she and Robert Schultz (vibraphone) had an expressive ensemble, with nuanced and fluid phrasing. The effect was otherworldly, at times abstract, at others, coursing with momentum.

Gabriela Ortiz Torres’ description of her piece Trifolium was not illuminating. I’m sure one could do a study on how the music is related to the 2002 painting which was her inspiration (and which itself was inspired by a 1618 painting). But nevertheless, I found the piece entirely engaging; Diaz (violin), David Russell (‘cello), and Berman (piano) caught fire, as the three exchanged evocative, spontaneous gestures, gradually building a structure with a motoric rhythm and lyrical interjections, which ultimately expanded to a furious, roiling unison.

David Sanford’s Dogma74 was a revelatory piece, for flute, clarinet, viola (Anne Black), cello, and piano, with Julian Pellicano conducting. Both the title and the names of the movements could have used a bit more explanation, but (again), never mind. It would be nice to know more about the incidents the titles refer to – the scholar in me loves this background – but, really the piece is completely self-sufficient without any overlap of specific ideas or memories. It was entirely electrifying and compelling. In the pre-concert discussion, co-director Yu-Hui Chang had mentioned the piece’s origins in Big Band Jazz, but those elements were subtle. As Sanford mentioned, there was the convention of the sax section having a unison solo, and that was referenced, in the first movement, in the winds and strings coming together in a jagged, angular melody. There were also moments of walking bass that emerged from the piano. But this was within a context of a gradual building of energy, with the five instruments intertwining abstractly, with fragmented bits of motives interlocking and a mournful cello line emerging and leading to the group coalescence. It was highly charged and riveting.

The second movement, “Turner’s Market,” cast a spell like sparse shafts of light, single overlapping tones in a hymn-like solemnity. Out of this emerged a meditative viola solo, followed by a playful, even bouncy passage that then intertwined with the sustained beams of light. The third movement, “20th Street Cafeteria,” was all forward drive and energy, the quick exchanges and interjections then interrupted by a the soulful wail the jazz viola — I was struck by what a perfect jazz instrument the viola can be! — punctuated by the crisp pizzicati of the cello and propulsion of the piano. There was another merging of the instruments, amazing after their freewheeling counterpoint, in a taut, climactic unison, concluding with a dissolving into fragments of melody.

A quibble: I don’t understand is why photography is tolerated during such a concert, surely the snapping and clicking (at least there was no flash) of people with cameras — there were two — is just as distracting as an errant cell phone might be, and at least a cell phone is an accident and is usually quickly silenced by a contrite audience member, while the clicking of the shutterbugs seemed like it might go on indefinitely. If photo shoots are desired, they should be scheduled before or after the performance, or it is also easy enough to have a stationary (i.e. not distracting) video camera from which stills can be extracted. My two cents!

I came away from this concert really excited by hearing Kolb’s, Ortiz’s and Sanford’s music and determined to hear more of their work. One thing I wanted to know was a little more about the history of the ensemble – it is so wonderful that they have been going for 37 seasons – who were the founders and previous directors? What various formats and philosophies have they experimented with? And why the name “Dinosaur Annex?” Well, I looked on their website and it didn’t find answers to those questions, but I did find quite an amazing repository here –“a partial list of works performed by Dinosaur Annex since 1987. Over 470 performances are listed, of which 87 were world premieres, 15 were U.S. premieres, and 130 were Boston premieres.” The range and variety of music they have presented is impressive. While a three-concert season is a modest undertaking, it is important that they have built and maintain a loyal fan base, and that they continue to explore and bring to light composers who are off the beaten path. I feel so grateful for Dinosaur Annex and its co-directors, Sue- Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin and Yu-Hui Chang for continuing this important work.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.

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