New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

An Auspicious, Surrealistically Intense Performance of Denise Mei Yan Hofmann Chamber Works at Mannes College of Music

Up-and-coming composers on the conservatory track face the daunting challenge of having to assimilate an overwhelming amount of material, all the while being expected to establish an individual voice. Too often, that puts a young composer in the position of having to regurgitate whatever stylistic tropes happen to be in vogue at a particular institution. Sometimes that makes sense: you like ambient music? IRCAM’s your place. Just as obsessed with improvisation as composition? New England Conservatory might be where you want to be. Is melody your thing? Try Mannes. That’s where Denise Mei Yan Hofmann is finishing her Master’s in music. Sunday night’s standing-room-only performance of an almost impossibly diverse mix of her recent chamber and choral works revealed how popular she is there. And she ought to be. Her music has a richly sardonic wit and also an acutely relevant angst: she is most definitely in the here and now. Somewhere there’s a dark comedy, a Coen Brothers film or its more modestly budgeted equivalent, screaming out for her to write its score.

The trombone quartet of Aden Brooks, Jacob Elkin, Nathan Wood and Daniel Dunford opened the concert auspiciously with Les Dents du Midi. Awash in uneasy close harmonies, tricky counterrythms and subtle, wry trainwhistle effects, this imposing Alpine tableau was a triumph of ambered low-midrange sonics perfectly suited to the instrumentation. Its dark majesty brought to mind John Zorn’s work for brass.

Backed by pianist Dimitry Glivinskiy, mezzo-s0prano Caitlin Cassidy gave a dynamic, expressive reading to The Ink Dark Moon, a suite of miniatures based on based on disconsolate tenth-century Japanese love poems by Izumi Shikibu, Hofmann’s scampering neoromanticism juxtaposed with lingering balladry and jaunty hints of cabaret.

The a-cappella quartet of Rachel Rosenberg, Virginia Weant, Gardner Fletke and Robert Frost sang There Is No Rose, conducted by Glivinskiy. Based on a fourteenth-century carol, it was more straightforwardly rhythmic and insistent, fueled by an imploring, rising, looping cadenza.

Hofmann’s sense of humor came front and center with Morning Thoughts, for vocal quartet and large ensemble. Originally written as a piece for vocal and percussion, it subsequently took on a life of its own, complete with crowdsourced lyrics based on sunrise and predawn musings, obsessions and terrors. Hofmann deadpanned that this was an experiment she was not likely to revisit, although she’d found the project to be as much fun as it was ambitious. From all sorts of suggestions, ranging from ultra-silly to ultra-serious, she culled some pretty harrowing themes: addiction, existential angst, struggles with faith and body image included. Deep heartbeat percussion immediately established a Dark Side of the Moon milieu, with droll and tongue-in-cheek flourishes interspersed amid the uneasily shifting, surrealistically disquieting narrative. Recitatives of antidepressant warning labels twitched alongside petulant choral passages; echoey vibraphone was punctuated by nagging trombone; repeated food references started out as comic relief and then became troubling in themselves. The piece’s declamatory phrasing and constantly shifting rhythmic center sometimes reminded of Ted Hearne at his most acerbic. As obvious as the ending turned out to be, it was also cruelly funny.

This challenging, kaleidoscopic concert version of the suite’s first movement (yup – there’s more!) was ably conducted by Robert Kahn, leading Rosenberg alongside mezzo-soprano Chelsea Kluga, tenor Mark Nimar and bass Enrico Lagasca, with Robby Bowen, Karen Hida and Jessica Tsang on percussion; Michael Tropepe on violin; Minjee Kim on flute; Wood on trombone and Margaret Kim on piano.

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.