“Quiver, Pound, Recharge!” opened Dinosaur Annex’s 42nd season on Sunday at The Rockwell in Davis Square (formerly known as the Davis Square Theater). Speaking purely musically, the show quivered more than it pounded, and required only a brief recharge during a slim 90 minutes including intermission. Whether or not the thematic title was intentionally risqué is an open question, though anyone expecting something like the underground theater’s usual programming (“Dirty Disney” and “Shit-Faced Shakespeare”) probably left disappointed.
But the production delivered on New Music expectations: semi-circles of music stands, performers in M&M-colored blouses and button-downs, and a selection of rather serious compositions by Derek Bermel, Anna Clyne, Lee Hyla, Kaija Saariaho, and David Sanford, mostly written in the last 15 years. The outlier, Saariaho’s Laconisme de L’Aile for flute and electronics, dates back to 1982.
The program opened with Clyne’s 1987 for bass flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics. The recorded soundscape dominated, only lightly decorated by the four live players, who shyly dwelt on held notes. The tape part sampled from a music box which the composer’s father once gave to her mother. The ending made the strongest impression: a sudden bloom of intensity quickly cut off, capping a mostly static work.
Rafael Popper-Keizer then delivered a tour-de-force performance of a baffling piece that has been in circulation since appearing on Matt Haimovitz’s 2003 CD Anthem. David Sanford’s Seventh Avenue Kaddish, a 9/11 memorial for solo cello, purports to “follow the overall form” of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, while simultaneously expressing the points of view of a jazz visionary, a street musician, a cantor, and a concert cellist (all in less than ten minutes). It feels awfully crowded, but still makes impressive use of the cello from top to bottom, and remains engaging for the ears through all its schizophrenic frenzy.
Bermel’s Thracian Sketches for solo clarinet completed the first half. The composer, himself a clarinetist, wrote this after studying folk music in Bulgaria in 2001. The rhythms he picked up abroad transfer directly into this solo work, which is cast in a minimalist mold reminiscent of early John Adams. Bermel’s more recent works tend to be lusher and more expressively immersive, but clarinetist Diane Heffner kept things interesting in her delivery of this stark work.
After intermission came Saariaho’s Laconisme de L’Aile, arguably the strongest piece on the concert. Saariaho’s works seem to have taken on a life of their own, springing up with relative frequency on programs across the country and around the globe. This flute and electronics piece was a good representative of her work: icy and alien, making successful and committed use of extended techniques and electronics, and evocative of something beyond normal experience. Flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin read a French poem as part of the piece, which then dissolved into the music.
A world premiere from the late Lee Hyla concluded the afternoon. Curiously, this Triptych for percussion and cello was written in 2009 for a group in New York that never performed it. The manuscript wound its way to Dinosaur Annex, with whom the composer had a close working relationship. The group finally premiered the piece on this concert, with percussionist Aaron Trant joining Rafael Popper-Keizer. The first movement pairs jagged cello writing with rapid articulation and punctuation on dulcimer, conga drums, and an assortment of other percussion. The middle movement focuses on the marimba and cello, while the finale contrasts brief lyrical passages with stretches of rhythmic grooves. Overall the Tryptrich feels fragmented, always changing and backing away from glimmers of beauty. It also appears devilishly difficult for the performers, requiring an acrobatic cellist and a percussionist with rare proficiency on the dulcimer (a likely cause of the belated premiere). Trant and Popper-Keizer, however, seem to have conquered the piece, and will hopefully offer it again so that others can make their judgments of its place in Hyla’s catalogue.
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer based in Boston.