A lively audience was on hand at the Goethe-Institut on Beacon Street on Sunday evening, November 1, for a concert and reception put on by Dinosaur Annex to honor Yehudi Wyner’s 80th birthday. It was warm testimony to how many friends this fine musician has had in Boston for 18 years and indeed much longer, for he is himself an old friend to all of us.
The evening began with an informal “Cross Talk” with composers gathered with Yehudi: Lewis Spratlan, Scott Wheeler, Michael Gandolfi, David Liptak, and Laurie San Martin, all of whom told of their long association with Yehudi and brought birthday greetings in the form of short pieces. Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, flutist and director of Dinosaur Annex, quarterbacked the discussion. Yehudi spoke touchingly of his father, Lazar Weiner (1897-1982), who for 46 years was director of music at the Central Synagogue in New York and was a prime mover in the preservation, even the rescue, of the Yiddish art song in America. The Weiner household was permeated with music night and day; the father took the son to countless concerts but was never formally his teacher.
“Birthday Surprises” began with Laurie San Martin’s Dawn Song for flute and marimba, a sensuous, smooth piece with an abundance of major triads and added single dissonances. Yuko Yoshikawa, filling in for Dinosaur’s regular percussionist on short notice, was the marimbist. She continued in the next piece, with Katherine Matasy playing clarinet in A Few Delectable, if Moody, Goodies by Lewis Spratlan, in which both players also had speaking roles: “‘My duty / Is to beauty / Says Yehudi!'” Another verbal reference to Yehudi’s piano concerto Chiavi in mano, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 following its Boston Symphony premiere, was accompanied by an actual quote from the music. A piano piece written for the occasion by John Harbison could not be performed; the U. S. Postal Service was blamed.
Stefan Hakenberg’s Days (1996), in five short movements, was ably handled by Matasy and Diane Heffner, playing two bass clarinets. The composer was not present but sent an affectionate birthday greeting. There were some odd moments of multiphonics, buzzing, and singing, and some nice moments of pedal points and sustained tones, including some that were played offstage. One of the pieces was an actual minuet, an 18th-century tribute if you will.
Yehudi’s Commedia (2002) for clarinet and piano followed, the composer accompanying Richard Stoltzman, who commissioned the 18-minute piece. The work moves back and forth between strident episodes — “on a note of high — even frantic — energy,” as the composer’s notes say — in very fast triple meter like a tarantella, and much slower, cantabile passages in essentially triadic harmony with occasional short explosions; for a moment I thought I heard a measure or two from Debussy’s Rapsodie for clarinet, but I might be wrong. Following a quick recall of the opening percussive material, the piece was abruptly over. It was a pleasure, too, to watch Yehudi’s relaxed and polished manner at the piano. He stated earlier that he had never aspired to or prepared for a career as a concert pianist, but one certainly got the impression that he could have survived admirably as one.
There were more “Birthday Surprises” after the intermission. One of the most attractive was For Yehudi at Eighty by his Brandeis colleague Martin Boykan, for clarinet (Katherina Matasy) and violin (Cyrus Stevens). This short duet featured a careful matching of unison pitches and slowly-oscillating seconds, the two instruments alternating in dialogue with well-spaced pauses. Michael Gandolfi’s To Yehudi: One in 42+ Million for flute and cello (Michael Curry) included some droll variations on “Happy Birthday,” well-concealed but not too-well-concealed, that evoked chuckles from the audience.
David Liptak’s Melissa’s Quilt (1999) for viola and marimba received a Boston premiere. The instrumental dialogue was set out in an attractive and easily-received rhythm, sometimes reminiscent of ragtime. The more chromatic figuration in fast texture in both instruments’ lower registers was sometimes hard to decipher, but at other times there was some fine coloration, especially when the viola and marimba doubled in unison or octave.
Scott Wheeler’s birthday offering was called Evidence Read at the Trial of the Knave of Hearts, with text by Lewis Carroll, in apparent tribute to Yehudi’s Mad Tea Party which concluded the program. Wheeler mentioned a partial tribute also to Lazar Weiner, and some of this was apparent in the klezmer-style beat that accompanied Sabrina Learman, soprano, and Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, with Wheeler at the piano. Yehudi’s A Mad Tea Party (1996), after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was also a Boston premiere, for flute, violin, cello, piano (the composer) and soprano (Learman), tenor (Frank Kelley) and baritone (David Kravitz). This is a delightful semi-staged masque (indeed, the singers appeared in semi-costume), full of in-group musical jokes, that is practical to perform and deserves to be heard more widely. (Alice is, of course, unable to answer the Mad Hatter’s riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” The answer, which never appears in the book, is “Because Poe wrote on both,” a tribute of sorts to the bizarre bard of Boston and Baltimore in his bicentennial year.)
Hats off to Dinosaur Annex for putting this fine evening together. And may Yehudi Wyner, who can look back on a long and distinguished career as a composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher, look forward to many more years of the same, as one of Boston’s own and best.