A Composer Fascinated by a Lot of Styles

New York Times
October 28, 2002

The Boston composer Lee Hyla writes works that deftly blend expressionistic, complex contemporary atonal idioms with elements of avant-garde jazz, rock and even punk. But this description, though true as far as it goes, does not begin to convey the ingenious skill and sheer originality of Mr. Hyla’s music: for example his brilliant Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra No. 2, a 1991 work that ended the first half of the all-Hyla program presented by Miller Theater on Wednesday night, the second in its Composer Portraits series.

The evening’s performers were the formidable five-member contemporary music ensemble Counter)induction, with 11 guest musicians. Jeffrey Milarsky was the nimble conductor.

Mr. Hyla packs a lot into his raw, onrushing, vibrant 20-minute concerto, in which the piano is pitted against a chamber ensemble that includes sinewy strings, a raucous bass clarinet and other reedy winds, a percussion section with sizzling drums, and a delicate hammered dulcimer. Clearly he is fascinated by all sorts of musical styles, which are echoed here: Elliott Carter, Stefan Wolpe, Cecil Taylor, rock. But with his acute ear and impressive harmonic sophistication, Mr. Hyla excels at what every composer strives to do: to take the sounds that capture him and fashion them into a distinctive voice.

Rhythmically the concerto takes listeners for a dizzying spin: sheer, hard-driving propulsion and darting, short-lived riffs give way repeatedly and elegantly to suspended passages of subdued, hazy bliss.

The soloist was Blair McMillen, the young pianist of Counter)induction, who with his performances on this program announced himself as a prodigiously accomplished and exciting new artist. Mr. McMillen was equally riveting in ‘Amnesia Variance’ (1989), a compact, intense, wondrously colorful work scored for piano, clarinets, violin, cello and hammered dulcimer.

He was also excellent in Mr. Hyla’s entrancing and witty ‘Wilson\’s Ivory-bill’ (2000), for baritone, piano and, on tape, a scratchy field recording of the weird hoots and squawks of an ivory-billed woodpecker, which Mr. Hyla imaginatively blends into the musical textures. The text, sung with clear diction and robust sound by the bass-baritone Robert Osborne, is taken from the journals of the 19th-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson.

The program included two other works that represent syntheses of styles: ‘The Dream of Innocent III’ (1987) and ‘Pre-Pulse Suspended’ (1984). While American orchestras keep commissioning the same handful of tame Neo-Romantics, here is a truly original composer who at 50 has yet to gain the attention he deserves.