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MUSIC REVIEW

Run AMOC! festival lights up Harvard Square

American Modern Opera Company, a creative incubator par excellence, has at last brought Cambridge an opera

Hans Werner Henze's “El Cimarrón” chamber opera is based on the oral autobiography of Esteban Montejo, an Afro-Cuban slave who escaped bondage and fought for Cuban independence from Spain.
Hans Werner Henze's “El Cimarrón” chamber opera is based on the oral autobiography of Esteban Montejo, an Afro-Cuban slave who escaped bondage and fought for Cuban independence from Spain.Stephanie Berger

Conor Hanick played John Cage as part of the Run AMOC! Festival.
Conor Hanick played John Cage as part of the Run AMOC! Festival.Hilary Scott

CAMBRIDGE — For the past few Decembers, American Modern Opera Company has offered adventurous listeners respite from the “Messiah,” motets, and mistletoe that make up most of the month’s concert listings in town. This wittily named Run AMOC! festival has never disappointed with its assortment of curiosities; a rollicking tour through Bach’s sonatas and preludes for flute, a “cage match” between soloists, a musical and theatrical meditation on police brutality, and a visceral collaborative work between violinist Keir GoGwilt and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith that has risen in a new incarnation each year.

But American Modern Opera Company had never brought Cambridge a full opera — until Friday evening at Farkas Hall, where a jungle of percussion instruments and towering yellow lamps set the stage for Hans Werner Henze’s “El Cimarrón,” a relentless 75-minute composition for four musicians.

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Now what is the logic behind an opera company that doesn’t focus on opera, you might ask? But no ordinary opera outfit is AMOC, a creative incubator where the boundaries between disciplines go to die. Helmed by artistic directors Matthew Aucoin (composer, conductor, pianist) and Zack Winokur (stage director, choreographer, dancer), the company focuses most of its energy on creating a new body of cross-disciplinary works rooted in the many aptitudes of its singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. Though certain (aye, most) AMOC events to date have not been operas, the attention paid to theatrics and presentation has always been operatic.

And If Friday’s Boston premiere of “Cimarrón” was the harbinger of what’s to come as AMOC moves forward, things bode well for the fledgling company. Written while Henze was teaching in Cuba in 1969-70,the piece’s libretto is based on the biography of formerly enslaved Cuban Esteban Montejo, which was published by ethnologist Miguel Barnet when Montejo was over 100. The picture of Montejo traced in the libretto is mostly sympathetic, but make no mistake, “Cimarrón” is no hagiography, but a complex portrait of a survivor who has seen and committed many unspeakable acts.

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The piece, a modernist tornado that the company first performed in New York earlier this year, demands a vocalist who can be not only a singer but an orator, a preacher, even a berserker. In bass-baritone Davóne Tines, AMOC had it all and more. Most of the score is declaimed in rhythmic quasi-Sprechstimme, with modes that cover ground from a dreamy whisper to brusque determination and howling, sulfuric rage. Tines’s mellifluous instrument, which Cambridge audiences may have heard in “Were You There” or “The Black Clown,” took the far back seat.

The composer described “Cimarrón” as a “recital for four musicians,” but no one would have recognized this performance as a recital. And though Montejo is the sole named character, to call “Cimarrón” a monodrama would discount the integral contributions of the other three musicians — here Emi Ferguson, flute; Jordan Dodson, guitar; and Jonny Allen, percussion. Ferguson, who physically harassed Tines with her flute while the instrument keened angry insect noises, was as much a character in the drama as he was. The same goes for Allen, who athletically flung himself around the stage-size labyrinth of percussion instruments (drums and hand percussion of all sizes and shapes, gong, sheet metal, a steel pan that sang like a hungry ghost) and Dodson, whose deconstructed Spanish guitar stylings evoked the hand of the colonizer. Add Winokur’s kinetic stage direction combined with John Torres’s sinister shadowplay lighting, re-created here by Kathleen Zhou — and this was entirely an opera. Enjoyable it was not, but I move that “Cimarrón” is not a piece to be enjoyed.

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A lucky few began their evening a few blocks away at the Loeb Drama Center’s small black box theater, where pianist Conor Hanick reprised his offering from last year’s Run AMOC! – CAGE, an otherworldly traversal of John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes.” The piano for this piece is prepared by inserting screws, strips of rubber, and putty in specific places within the strings; some notes still sound like a piano, but others more recall a marimba or a Javanese gamelan, and the result is less of a piano recital than an exploration of some extra-dimensional carillon.

One could spend hours diving deep into the philosophy, theory, and mathematics of this piece, but AMOC offered only a small card with bare-bones information about the creative team in lieu of a program book. The audience was exhorted to be here now, and ask questions later — and what’s more, reading program notes would have been impossible anyway once Hanick’s first chords plunged the room into near-total darkness, save for a single pool of light illuminating the keyboard.

Anyone would have missed out if they had tried to keep their head in the book instead of watch Hanick at work. With agile grace he spooled out frantic phrases, and a light touch of sentiment illuminated ghostly lullabies. At one point, a door opened and dancer-choreographer Julia Eichten threw herself onstage; for a few minutes, she skittered and slid across the stage as if compelled by the irregular whims of the music, and then she was gone as quickly as she’d appeared. When another door swung open at the front of the small room, letting light filter in, I eagerly anticipated more dancing — but nothing appeared except for dust motes drifting in the light to the hypnotic patterns of the music. Sometimes a door is just a door.

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RUN AMOC!

Presented by American Repertory Theater. Various locations, Harvard Square, Cambridge. Dec. 13. Repeats Dec. 14. www.runningamoc.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.