SOMERVILLE — Sunday’s season opener for Dinosaur Annex, in the compact, cool black box of the Rockwell (formerly the Davis Square Theatre), took full advantage of music’s ability to transport. Longtime artistic co-director Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin and brand-new artistic co-director Emily Koh gathered a program of new and new-ish pieces summoning places both specific and abstract — and one that, perhaps, sidestepped such escapism altogether.
The opener, Anna Clyne’s “1987,” evoked the most particular memory. A prerecorded collage (mixing a music box belonging to Clyne’s parents and field recordings from England’s Brighton Beach) poked through a slow-moving, murky scrim of chorale, Hershman-Tcherepnin on bass flute, Diane Heffner on bass clarinet, violinist Gabriela Diaz, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer likewise whispering low on their instruments. The thick haze hinted at the difficulty of recall, as did the most prominent sound: the resistant ratchet of winding the music box to play again.
Popper-Keizer gave a commanding performance of a different kind of memory piece, David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish,” composed for a 9/11 memorial. Numerous voices jostle for position on the solo cello, with a free-jazz-like insistent ecstasy perhaps the most prominent: sheets of sound, filtered through the cello’s most voice-like qualities. But the channeled rhetorical changes had the feel of a recollection turning into a collective commemoration.
Derek Bermel’s “Thracian Sketches” was an effective bit of armchair travel, Heffner spinning a long, slow-to-fast, low-to-high spool of Balkan-inspired rhythms and motives. Hershman-Tcherepnin conjured the atmosphere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Laconisme de L’Aile” (“The Incisiveness of the Wing”), a short recitation of poetry by St.-John Perse flowing into a flute solo, Hershman-Tcherepnin’s tone and breath electronically reflected, reinforced, redoubled — escapism-by-species, birds soaring away from and far above human fears.
The finale was a premiere, “Triptych” by the late Lee Hyla (the work was commissioned and written in 2009, but remained unperformed at Hyla’s 2014 death). The instrumentation was exotic: Popper-Keizer on cello, joined by Aaron Trant, playing a battery of percussion and a twanging hammered dulcimer. The first movement’s sinuous shimmer led to a brawny marimba-cello call-and-response in the second; the third movement’s opening bongo-and-pizzicato cool collapsed into dissonant, funky angles. The performance was cogent, solid, locked-in. But the music’s obsessive recombinations and oblique shifts replaced the rest of the program’s travel with a constant, immediate, and instantly-dissolving present tense. Instead of memory, it was the prompt to remember: the sheer challenge of hanging on to time as it passes.
At the Rockwell, Somerville, SundayMatthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.