Toes were tapping, fingers flying, hearts palpitating, and synapses firing at the Goethe-Institut Boston last night, as the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble presented a chamber-music program consisting entirely of pieces composed within the last 20 years. Entitled “Alive and Kicking,” this thought-provoking performance showcased contemporary works created with tonal vocabularies, a sub-genre that is most definitely alive and well.
Dinosaur Annex, named after an extinct New England theatrical group but also very much alive and kicking, endeavors to shed light on the often underperformed and under-appreciated works of living composers. This concert, presented in the ornately intimate confines of the Goethe, started off, quite literally, with a bang. Jennifer Higdon’s (b. 1962) rapid♦fire (1992), written for solo flute, takes that delicate instrument on an uncharacteristically dark and tumultuous journey as it graphically portrays the rage, fear, and pain associated with urban street violence. This is raw, saber-toothed music with a clear and emphatic emotional message. Flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin was called upon to create what seemed to be nearly the entire aural palette of her instrument in a non-stop series of furious squalls of notes. In her virtuosic and stirring rendition one could hear the flutter of footsteps, harsh breathing, cries of anguish. She was even called upon to throw down a small exploding device (a “bang-snap”) as a final gesture, an ersatz gunshot that served as a fitting exclamation point. This is a piece that really gets one’s heart racing.
Our dark journey continued with Pierre Jalbert’s (b. 1967) Sonata for Piano (2009). Of the five pieces on the program, this was the only entirely abstract composition, as the remainder were associated with specific thematic material. The Jalbert Sonata utilizes a traditional tripartite structure, consisting of three aptly-named movements: Ominous; Very Slow, reverberant; and Wild. Ranging from jaggedly jazzy to hard-edged ethereal to chaotically virtuosic, the music seems charged with an undercurrent of anger. Its technical demands are myriad as it ranges over the entire keyboard as well into the bowels of the instrument. Props to pianist Hugh Hinton who managed to deal with all manner of complex syncopation, note clusters, blizzards of accidentals, and who knows what else. His keyboard technique and pedaling were precise as he was obviously very respecting of the challenging score.
And then the metaphorical clouds parted and a ray of sunshine peeked through. Diamond in the Rough (2006), a trio for violin, viola, and percussion composed by Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, is as glittery as its title suggests. Using the composer’s multifaceted music, life, and myth as inspiration, this mesmerizing and highly amusing piece consists of movements entitled Magic, Fifty-Five Minutes Past Midnight (the time of Mozart’s death), and Wig Dance (reflecting Mozart’s reputation as a notorious party animal). Violinist Gabriela Diaz and violist Anne Black were solid in their secondary roles, but the real star of this composition was percussionist Robert Schulz. His rhythmic dance from tambourine to triangle to wind chimes to glockenspiel to tuned wine glasses was fascinating and impressive for both eye and ear. The multifarious percussive textures added the sparkle to this diamond and made for a hauntingly beautiful (and at times playful) piece of music, very evocative and representative of the magical, mythical Mozart.
Violinist Diaz and pianist Hinton combined forces with cellist David Russell in the Boston premiere of Howard Frazin’s (b. 1962) Some Thoughts on Good and Evil (2009), a musical setting of poems by Langston Hughes and William Blake, both of which grapple with the presence of evil in our world. The mood is somber, the sonorities dark. As with rapid♦fire, this is music that wears its proverbial heart on its sleeve and strikes a powerful emotional chord (both figuratively and literally) with the listener. In this case, however, pathos has replaced anger as the dominant emotion. It’s a direct, bittersweet piece that reverberates in both mind and heart. The thoughtful and tenderly crafted rendition by performers Diaz, Hinton, and Russell enhanced the contemplative aspect of this music. In his pre-concert conversation, composer Frazin differentiated between “outside” music, that which gets people to physically move, and “inside” music, that which is more introspective and philosophical in nature. Some Thoughts on Good and Evil falls squarely into the latter category.
Yang to Some Thoughts’ yin, Michael Gandolfi’s (b. 1956) Cable Ready (1997) would undoubtedly be categorized by Howard Frazin as an “outside” composition, in the sense that it’s a toe-tapping rollick of a piece. Its three movements (Power Chords, The All-Interval Tetrachord Blues, Fully Inserted) are cleverly conceived and contain multifarious interwoven musical quotes and references. Duple and triple meters are also intertwined in the first movement, which had a tendency to confound my tapping toes. This bustling music, bursting with life and able to be appreciated both intellectually and viscerally, would no doubt make an excellent background score for an urban documentary. Cellist Russell, pianist Hinton, and percussionist Schulz had their hands full as they steamed to the contrapuntally climactic conclusion, sounding at times more like a sextet than a trio. Special kudos to Russell for an impassioned rendition and Hinton for avoiding disaster when the page-turner missed his cue. Our concert opened with a bang and closed with a bang.
So, yes, tonal music is most certainly alive and kicking. All of this evening’s compositions were musically complex yet emotionally accessible. One can only hope that these fresh-faced works get the exposure they deserve. More power to Dinosaur Annex; may you never go extinct!