An essential part of Boston’s diverse classical scene, Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble encourages the writing of new music, as well as maintaining and performing a vast repertoire from the 20th- and 21st- centuries. On Friday, the ensemble celebrated its 40th anniversary with dramatic and varied new expressionist compositions alongside others that drew their inspirations from bluegrass and a number of outside sources (technology, Eastern philosophy, and political expression). The concert was dedicated to the memory of two musicians: violinist Janet Packer, a founding member of Dinosaur Annex, dedicated player and teacher; and composer Lee Hyla, who shared a close relationship with the ensemble. Hyla also taught at New England Conservatory for many years.
Friday’s program “Shaken, Stirred, and Straight up” evoked certain expressive qualities and, as might be guessed, alluded to the pre-performance cocktail hour (though we were assured by co-artistic director, Yu-Hui Chang, that Dinosaur Annex does not regard drinking as an essential part of the musical experience). The Davis Square Theater is a venue that seats 150 people on three sides of its floor level stage. While less resonant than most concert halls, its small size, cocktail bar and intimate feel more than compensate.
Undoubtedly, the works that “shook” and “stirred” were those by Lee Hyla (String Trio and Passeggiata for solo violin) and Kati Agócs (Versprechen for solo cello). All three seemed to communicate a turbulent struggle and were played with great expression and poise by violinist, Gabriela Diaz; violist, Anne Black; and cellist, Rafael Popper-Keizer. A less dramatic approach was heard in Jeffrey Roberts’ third movement of Twelve Landscape Views, undertaken by the composer on guqin and electronics and Phillip Stäudlin on soprano saxophone. And as another take on the “stirred” theme, we heard the Peace March 1 (“Stop Using Uranium”), by Christian Wolff, performed by Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin on bass flute. The “straight” portion of the evening was provided by Wrong Mountain Stomp. Its three movements solidly in the bluegrass style were given appropriate swing and swagger by the same string trio as the Hyla. The composer was John Mackey (who, let it be known, does support drinking before new music concerts, at least as an option).
Passeggiata (2007) by Lee Hyla, an intense, expressionist journey for solo violin came first. World-renowned violinists Midori and Vadim Repin commissioned it, wanting a short piece for use in a variety of situations—radio programs, educational outreach, and charity events. Like much of Hyla’s output, Passeggiata continually defies expectations, at various times nervous and disjointed, romantically lyrical, or rhythmically driven, its flurry of furious runs yields to a romantic melody before bright harmonics emerge from dense harmonic textures. Gabriela Diaz gave it all of the virtuosity and intensity that it demanded.
The third movement of Twelve Landscape Views (2014) for guqin and soprano took a starkly contrasting approach to musical expression. Jeff Roberts, its composer, draws inspiration from the latest technology, as well as from his studies of the guqin, a plucked seven-string instrument from China, known to have existed for at least 3,500 years. According to Roberts, who spoke before the show, the instrument would have been played by Chinese scholars who listened to its sounds in the moral context of Confucianism or the spiritual context of Tao. He went on describe how a device allowed his left hand to amplify the sound of the live guqin and trigger pre-recorded sounds. To effectively blend with the quiet sound of the guqin (even in its amplified form), the saxophone had to play within a limited dynamic range and was stripped of any romantic or jazz associations; the instruments met each other halfway. When heard in a (John) Cage-like mode of appreciating sounds simply for what they are, it was delicately affecting.
Peace March 1 (“Stop Using Uranium”) (1984) for bass flute, was written by Christian Wolff and interpreted adeptly by flutist and co-artistic director of Dinosaur Annex, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin. The piece spoke in a language similar to that of Hyla. It consisted largely of irregular declamatory statements, along with melodic fragments and extended techniques, though often to humorous effect. And wherein lies the title? According to Wolff, “it draws from the tune, ‘Hey Ho Nobody Home’ a 16th-century protest song to which new words were put during the 70s anti-nuclear-war movement, under the title ‘Stop Using Uranium’.” March 1 gave the impression of a surreally ridiculous army marching band flute or maybe the protester herself, helpless in the face of an insurmountable challenge.
Next came String Trio (1981), by Lee Hyla. The composer has been noted for his integration of jazz and rock into a modernist classical idiom. In his Piano Concerto No. 2, jazz riffs emerge from chords and textures that are reminiscent of Elliot Carter. His string trio, however, makes fewer obvious stylistic detours, but is still built on contrast and is no less effective. In the words of the composer, “The basic premise is the relationship of the relatively simple tune, heard in the violin as the piece begins, to its angular and dramatically contrasting accompaniment.” The trio was technically assured and highly emotional and was well-played by the capable musicians.
Like Hyla’s Passeggiata, Versprechen (Promise) (2005) by Kati Agócs, was a tour de force for the player, in this case, cellist, Rafael Popper-Keizer, who handled the challenges heroically. With incessant double stops and encompassing the full range of the cello (at one point, a leap of two octaves brought the cellist’s left hand within a couple of inches of the bow), Promise is gripping to watch and hear. The title, Versprechen, is derived from that of a Lutheran chorale that was harmonized by J.S. Bach. Though presented abstractly at first, the chorale melody gradually emerges from the depths of the cello’s range to build to a hard-won D major chord.
On the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the voices of of Hyla and Agócs, John Mackey’s Wrong Mountain Stop (2004) was effective in a “bluegrass style,” and idiomatic for the string trio. The composer told us that his work was composed for a festival with the specification that it not be objectionable to the conservative donors. Bluegrass seemed to be a good solution to this constraint. Wrong Mountain Stop narrates the story of Jenny, who leaves her home and her boyfriend and then gets on a train for (we can only hope) better things ahead. Each of the three movements conveyed a scene, with the instruments embodying characters. Looking at the program as a whole, it might be said that the drama, struggle, and even alienation, expressed by most of the previous music was then playfully portrayed in tongue in cheek. It arrived as a new species of new music encore.
Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble planned and executed admirably. The ensemble’s dedication to the new and usual makes it essential to Boston audiences. Its next outing is on April 26th, and we can only hope that the group will thrive for another 40 years.