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

by delarue

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.