Filling a Night with Natural Wonder

By Kevin Lowenthal
Globe Correspondent

"Animal/Vegetable/Mineral" was the quizzical name of Dinosaur Annex's concert Sunday night, the culmination of its 30th-anniversary season. Animals occurred in the titles of several compositions, vegetables in another. The mineral? Perhaps Arnold Schoenberg's "Suite, Op. 29," one of his hardest pieces, for players and listeners.

Dinosaur Annex, champion of local new-music composers, commissioned seven longtime collaborators to write short duos for this anniversary concert. The opening duo, James Russell Smith's "A Lion at the Window," with Karen V. Matasy on clarinets and Michael Curry on cello, evoked the dead-serious playfulness of the composer's cat. Ezra Sims's spidery, microtonal " furthermore . . ." was carefully delineated by Ian Greitzer's clarinet and Ann Black's viola. Malcolm Peyton's impetuous "Tango Steps" showcased Cyrus Stevens's schmaltzy violin and Donald Berman's incisive piano.

Guest conductor Gunther Schuller led Chen Yi's quartet "Qi," which uses Western instruments to explore Asian musical space with striking, calligraphic gestures. Showcasing Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin's flute and piccolo, Curry's cello, Berman's piano, and Robert Schultz's varied percussion, the piece often thundered, and even its quietest moments held tension.

Matasy, also an accordionist, ended the concert's first half with two Guy Klucevsek accordion compositions. The solo "Loosening Up the Queen" featured a melancholy Balkan melody, played softly, sparely, and slowly at first, then louder as it gained momentum and harmonic richness with each repetition. In the engaging quartet "Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse," the three strings played jazzy riffs over a lively 6/8 accordion rhythm. The piece proceeded cheerily through several odd-gaited time signatures before coming home.

Opening with three more anniversary bagatelles, the concert's second half was dominated by Schoenberg's rarely played "Suite, Op. 29," composed in the mid-1920s and arguably his first masterpiece employing the forbidding 12-tone system he created.

The ensemble's rendition, beautifully conducted by Schuller, brought a distinctively Viennese lilt to an idiom usually associated with expressionist anxiety. Their precision, grace, and passion illuminated the dense, bristling composition, emphasizing its continuity with tradition as much as its radical break from it.

As befitting its name, the ensemble made a high-modernist dinosaur live again.