SOMERVILLE — Time, like an ever-rolling stream, has borne Dinosaur Annex to its 40th season, inaugurated on Friday with a concert (and cocktails) at the Davis Square Theatre. Longevity is an incongruous boast for a new-music group, which, by definition, looks forward; Dinosaur Annex, now run by flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin and composer Yu-Hui Chang, still makes its bones with premieres and emerging talents. But both the anniversary and a remembrance of colleagues — Janet Packer, the group’s founding violinist, and composer Lee Hyla, who both died this year — fueled a program pulling past music into a new-music present.
Hyla’s 1981 String Trio, commissioned by Dinosaur Annex, is an early example of the composer’s precipitous lyricism. Long arcs of melody and fractious, scribbled accompaniment circle each other; a slow movement is revealed in plain sight when the accompaniment simply drops away, a magical touch. Like expert jugglers, violinist Gabriela Diaz, violist Anne Black (who also played the premiere, alongside Packer), and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer kept the ribbons and knives dexterously aloft. Diaz opened the concert with a later iteration of Hyla’s style, his 2007 violin solo “Passeggiata”: sharp angles — craggy leaps, grinding double-stops, wiry scales — astutely approximated into graceful curves.
The rest of the music traded on echoes, of notes, of pieces. Jeff Roberts’s 2014 “Twelve Landscape Views, III” swirled a guqin, the ancient Chinese zither (played by Roberts), Philipp Stäudlin’s soprano sax, and an overlay of electronics into a sketchbook of mirrored interstitial sounds: key clicks and knuckle taps, squeaks of fingers and reed, an increasingly bewitching trajectory of accumulation and resonance. Hershman-Tcherepnin, on bass flute, serenely treaded Christian Wolff’s 1984 “Peace March 1 (‘Stop Using Uranium’)”: anti-nuclear demonstration as a cheerfully twittering rumble, an old protest song emerging in glimpses, vestigial dissent feeding a latter-day generation. Kati Agócs’s 2005 “Versprechen,” for solo cello, was a grimly dramatic cousin, its source a Bach chorale, amplified into double-stop impasto, boiled away to a wisp of harmonics, finally coming into hard-won light. (Popper-Keizer navigated with gorgeous sound and a pilgrim’s determination.)
The finale was John Mackey’s bluegrass-inspired “Wrong Mountain Stomp” (2004), Diaz, Black, and
Popper-Keizer parlaying the style’s penchant for open-string drive and sliding melodic inflection into busy, over-the-top fun. But even here, the negotiation between past and future felt appropriate. The final movement trades on the old fiddler’s trick of imitating a train, chugging away, whistle keening; the sound nostalgic, but the machine itself moving forward, ever-rolling.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.