There’s a certain phase in the career of a composer when a commission or a request for a piece of music reverses time and causality: what seems like a hire actually ends up feeling more like a job interview. Depending on a given composer’s ideal community or level of entrepreneurial spirit, the phase can be short or long. But I think almost all composers have been faced with writing a piece in which there was also the pressure to prove oneself, to work in a complete survey of the composer’s skill set.
What often results might be called “portfolio pieces,” pieces in which one of the compositional goals is to, along the way, show what the composer can do. This is not necessarily a bad thing—take Hector Berlioz, for instance, who wrote pieces (which I love) in which he seems to feel the need to demonstrate everything he knows about every eight bars or so. But such pieces tend to be best appreciated in isolation. That, at least, was one of the lessons of the 10th Annual Young Composers Concert presented by Dinosaur Annex on October 28. Out of six works by six composers “on the cusp of their professional lives,” it was the ones that did the least that ended up making the strongest impressions.
I’ll start with the two busiest: Narrow Apogee, by James Borchers (a Dinosaur Annex commission) was both formidably dense and the kind of piece that seemed to erase its presence as it went along. For much of it, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin (on flute and alto flute) and Anne Black (on viola) overlapped tremolos that precisely waxed and waned around a hidden beat. The intervals and meter were being constantly, fluidly manipulated, but in a way that meant they were also constantly effaced. Joseph Tydings Mannarino’s Petrichor (a premiere) had a similar forest-vs.-trees, profuse quality. A solo viola piece (Black again), it aimed for a montage between austere double-stops reminiscent of Renaissance ritual and a web of extended-technique noise: creaking bow pressure, microtonal growling. But then each of those aspects was in turn further dissected; the fast cutting, instead of building to a climax, seemed instead to dissolve into a quick-fire slideshow of random snapshots. Mannarino’s resourcefulness in wringing sounds from the instrument was notable, but it felt more like a tour of the workshop than a finished object.
Wang Jie’s Shadow occupied some middle ground. A violin-cello-piano trio (Gabriela Diaz, Tony Rymer, and Donald Berman, respectively), its portraiture (“[dramatizing] the inner life of an autistic child,” according to the program notes) came in the form of juxtapositions, presenting an idea only to drop it and pick up another. But the ideas fell into clear categories—tightly wound chromatic scribbling alternating with rocking, sing-song thirds and fourths—and the overall sound, glossy and brittle with high piano and pizzicato, was distinctive. The sound of Roger Zare’s Geometries (which added Katherine Matasy’s clarinet to the trio) was familiar: Copland redux, la-do-sol motives and subdominant implications in a smooth weave. The first movement, “Fractals,” worked up a host of mensuration canons, the outlines of which were sometimes obscured by the general pandiatonic cast. The finale, “Tangents,” was clearer, spooling out busy moto-perpetuo counterpoint that would then become the background for soaring melodies: a simple but handy trope.
The evening’s second commission was Dan VanHassel’s Alter Ego, for an occasion-specific octet: Hershman-Tcherepnin, Matasy, Rymer, and Berman were paired off with a quartet of high-school musicians, mirroring the same instrumentation (Tal Scully, Colin Roshak, Sea-Jay Van der Ploeg, and Bryan McGuiggen, respectively). VanHassel tasked the younger players with the harmonic mise en scène, the texture that of percolating minimalism, but the harmonic shifts more impulsive. The professionals overlaid that with sound effects: overblown accents, multiphonics, muted piano—mad-scientist art-pop. Gradual diminutions of the harmonic rhythm reached a nifty coda of dovetailed accelerandi. Alter Ego put its ideas, both borrowed and unconventional, in the foreground with bright efficiency.
Even more straightforward was Carolyn O’Brien’s Conveyance, in which tandem alto flute tongue pizzicato and bass clarinet flutters gradually disappeared into a bright haze of stained glass piano chords. (Hershman-Tcherepnin, Matasy, and Berman were the performers.) That’s all it was: a simple trajectory, but executed with sure-footed style, and yielding unassumingly rich returns.
One other thing to note about the concert: the prospect of professional success for “young” composers seems to be as temporally receding as it’s ever been. Mannarino, at 22, was the outlier—the rest all ranged from late 20s to early 40s. A life in composition continues to be a matter largely of persistence, a game of chicken with the financial and social pressures of adulthood. Dinosaur Annex’s Young Composers Concerts sit at the intersection of that fact of life and the particular make-up of the organization itself. It started out in 1975 as the house ensemble for the now-defunct New England Dinosaur Dance Theater, but, even on its own, the name fits. In terms of repertoire and administration, the group has always seemed an extra room built onto Boston’s main classical-music house; somewhat unusually for Boston new music groups, it’s always had composers leading the artistic side of things—Hershman-Tcherepnin and composer Yu-Hui Chang (who also showed a deft hand conducting Alter Ego, with its tricky tempo shifts and accumulating phrasing) currently share the artistic direction duties. And composers know what composers need: opportunities for good performances in front of interested audiences. Dinosaur Annex delivers on both counts. You can forgive those on the program for wanting to take as much advantage as possible.
Still, as Emily Dickinson warned:
Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing
—and sometimes it’s nice not to have to chase recognition. On November 5, Dickinson’s poem sat at the center of “November Buzz,” a concert at Tufts University in which most of the music was bee-related. There’s a venerable jape about avant-garde music, the most complex of the complex, that it’s nothing but composers writing for other composers; but, in my experience, anyway, it’s when composers—especially student composers—know they’re playing to their peers that they often relax the most. That was the case here: in front of a tiny crowd (of which I may very well have been the only outsider), the composers on the program offered musical sketches at their most easygoing.
Dickinson and her poem were featured guests in John McDonald’s Bee Group, in which soprano Jennifer Ashe and pianist Sarah Bob circled the text multiple times in the group’s outer movements, “Bee Poem Almost Six Times” and “More on That Same Bee Poem.” The settings were quick variations, almost acting exercises, each bringing out a different aspect of the poem: longing, danger, the sting itself (complete with Bob howling in annoyed pain). McDonald, the concert’s lone faculty representative, has a style ideal for these sorts of miniatures, sharply energetic, essentially tonal but free-ranging through keys, lapidary, and polished. Two middle movements—a setting of David Ignatow’s “Praise the Worker Bees” and a cello solo (played by Katherine Kayaian), “Music for Big Bees, Only Louder”—put fast-chugging passagework and arcs of melody in dialectic alternation.
The rest of the concert presented student works. A pair of pieces by Christopher Marinuzzi avoided the hive: Prelude-Variations, for piano (played by the composer), mapped a glassy, dissonant chorale onto different voicings and registers; Two Chants (this one for Ashe, Bob, and Kayaian) stalked texts by Yeats and Beckett in a deliberate manner, the music circling a handful of stark craggy ideas. Jeanette Chechile’s piano solo Music for the Bee (performed by McDonald) was short, sweet, and Debussyesque, lazy bumblebee topples of cloudy harmony interspersed with short, darting runs. Logan Wright’s The Bumble Bee and the Orchid (played by Bob and Kayaian) also ran along a Debussy/Scriabin axis, and was also brief, an opening mix of cello tremolando and crystalline piano leading into a compact lyric excursion.
Meng Tian’s Provocations (again performed by McDonald) used its lightly prepared piano—especially the apian buzz of paper on the strings—to punctuate tight, teletype gestures of repeated notes. Mike Laurello’s Oscillations mixed in some electronics—the composer, at the piano, and a computerized double swirled through a succinct series of post-minimalist, pastel-shaded phases.
Most of the music felt occasional, but the programmatic background also seemed to have inspired a directness to the pieces that is not always easy to generate on larger canvases. The sweep of a larger canvas was absent as well, but, taken as a whole, the concert proved a rather effective divertimento. Instead of a career day, it was more like a day off.