Lee Hyla’s passionate music burns bright at NEC tribute

September 26, 2014 at 1:11 pm

By David Wright

The New England Conservatory presented a concert tribute to composer Lee Hyla Thursday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe

What if Charles Ives had grown up listening to the Rolling Stones instead of church hymns and the town band?  Maybe he would have composed music like that of the late Lee Hyla.

One imagines that Thursday night’s all-music, no-talk tribute to Hyla at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was exactly the kind of memorial the late composer would have wanted.

As performed by some of Boston’s most prominent chamber musicians, often in works composed specifically for them, Hyla’s music was as hard-driving and evocative as a freight train in the night.  Even without its explicit allusions to artists such as Donovan and Neil Young, one would have felt a Dionysian rock sensibility at work.

Verbal explanations of Hyla’s contrapuntal prowess, tone chemistry, and eclectic harmony could wait.  Thursday’s generous selection of his works—nine single-movement pieces in a concert lasting nearly two and a half hours–painted a vivid portrait of the artist as a still-young man when he died last June at age 61.

Hyla, an NEC alumnus who taught composition there from 1992 to 2007 and finished his career at Northwestern University, came across Thursday night as a composer who created a highly individual sound world, within which he was able to express a multitude of moods and ideas.

Other than a particular fondness for the bass clarinet—he composed a concerto for it, and it figured prominently in two works at this concert—Hyla’s choice of means was anything but radical.  The familiar instruments of 19th-century chamber music (plus percussion) sufficed, for the works on this program at least.  A hand inside the piano to mute a note here and there was about as far out as playing techniques got.

In fact, Hyla was unafraid to sound old-fashioned at times. His unaccompanied violin piece for Midori, while adventurous harmonically, also acknowledged her elegance and silky tone in Romantic repertoire.

And what could be more classical than A-B-A form with coda?  Hyla came back to it again and again, fiercely energetic in the outer sections, dreamy in the middle, and closing softly, or perhaps with one last Beethovenian bark.

But then, Hyla seemed to love stark contrasts, not just between sections of a piece but from one bar to the next, or even simultaneously.  A typical texture was a melody in long hammered notes surrounded by a babble of atonal filigree.

Appropriately, Thursday’s program opened with a piano piece ostensibly about a child discovering the piano, but functioning here as a kind of creation myth for the Hyla style.

Basic Training began with loud single notes expressing fascination with what happens when one pokes a piano key, then gradually ramified into countermelody, harmony, accompaniment figures, new tone colors, and virtuoso technique, until the piano emerged as the spectacular, quasi-orchestral instrument we know and love.  Pianist Stephen Drury told the tale with acrobatic skill and sonorous, insistent fortissimos.

Passeggiata, the violin solo composed for Midori, exemplified another Hyla favorite technique, a quasi-minimalist way of settling on a single harmony and playing tonal and figurational variations on it.  But another characteristic Hyla trait is not lingering with any effect too long, and bits of sweet lyricism and choppy birdsong also swirled through this robust fantasy, vividly rendered by Gabriela Diaz.

The birds took center stage in Field Guide, a septet for strings, winds, piano and percussion composed in 2006 for the Firebird Ensemble, which was on hand Thursday to perform it under the direction of Jeffrey Means.  Working with a CD of birdsongs at his side, Hyla composed a sort of world orchestra of feathered creatures from Australia’s Superb Lyrebird to the U.S.’s Musical Wren.  In Thursday’s colorful performance, tom-tom-driven outer sections enclosed a spacious interlude of long chords in strings and flute.

According to the program note by pianist Judith Gordon, the piano piece Third Party “was commissioned to set the tone for the Liszt Sonata in B minor.”   It would seem as though that sprawling masterpiece was quite capable of setting its own tone, but in any case Hyla was certainly in sympathy with Liszt’s “transcendental” conception of the instrument.  Gordon’s performance rose to the challenge of the piece’s technical demands, but for this listener the most memorable thing about Third Party was another favorite Hyla effect, a Debussy-like soft chiming of single notes and thirds.

Hyla’s method of allowing a piece to blossom gradually from a single opening note was heard once again in the String Quartet No. 3, composed in 1989 for the Lydian String Quartet and performed by that group Thursday.  The well-knit veteran ensemble expertly realized Hyla’s sonic effects from all-out rage to wisps of sound to moments of chugging rock rhythm.

Migración, Hyla’s 2013 setting of a longish poem by Pablo Neruda about migratory birds and the cycles of life, was given an appropriately airy rendering by mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo with the Callithumpian Consort directed by Drury.  Lobo’s limpid tone and easy lift were just right for this music; her voice intertwined nicely with instruments in the nine-piece ensemble even as her part became more and more speech-like in style.

The avian theme continued in Warble, a piece for flute and piano commissioned in 2008 on the occasion of flutist Fenwick Smith’s retirement from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Flutist Sarah Brady did indeed warble, and also burble and flutter, in a skillful and rich-toned performance that held up well to sharp birdy exclamations in Yoko Hagino’s wide-open grand piano.

That piano got still another workout from Sarah Bob, in a bold performance of the solo cadenzas Hyla composed for her in his 2009 piece for the Firebird Ensemble, My Life on the Plains.

Yes, that’s the title of George Armstrong Custer’s memoirs, and Hyla did compose the piece during a summer residency in Wyoming, an arrow’s flight from the Little Big Horn battleground.  One couldn’t tell if pianist Bob was actually channeling Sitting Bull, but her hammering dissonances were certainly the scariest of the night, leaving the nine-foot grand literally quaking in its casters.

In contrast, the program closed with the most introspective music of the night, a 1990 piece composed in New York and Rome and titled, what else, Ciao, Manhattan.  Returning from earlier performances were pianist Drury, violinist Diaz, and cellist David Russell, joined by Jessi Rosinski on flute and alto flute.

Growing once again from a single note, the soft opening bars seemed to evoke Copland’s Appalachia more than busy Italian or American cities.  No raging fury intruded, just a burble of piano under the long notes; the piece’s major event was the instruments exchanging roles, the piano taking the melody over figurations in the others.

One more soft, evanescent Hyla ending left the listener in a mood to reflect on a life in music, shorter than most, lived amid the respect and affection of colleagues and students, with recognition in one’s field if not much celebrity with the public.  One can at least hope that these performers who brought his music so vividly to life Thursday night will continue to charm and assault audiences with it for years to come.

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