A Fitting Farewell to Local Composer

February 2, 2007

“Farewell to Lee Hyla” read the sign outside Jordan Hall announcing Tuesday night’s concert, part of New England Conservatory’s Composers’ Series. Hyla departs for Chicago in the coming months, but there was nothing sentimental or bittersweet about the evening. Instead, a series of skilled performers took to the Jordan Hall stage to remind the audience of the unique energy of his music, and of his presence in Boston’s music scene.

Considering the diversity of offerings, the presence of two saxophone pieces was notable. The concert kicked off with “Pre-Amnesia,” a brusque solo for alto sax played by Tim Smith . Later in the program, “Paradigm Lost,” for saxophone quartet, offered a more leisurely view of Hyla’s compositional gifts. The Thump Saxophone Quartet brilliantly handled its smoothly shifting rhythms and plush textures, as well as some of the most beautiful melodies heard all night.

In Stephen Drury’s hands, “Basic Training” sounded like a piano etude turned inside out. Starting from obstinately repeated single notes, it grew into a welter of criss-crossing lines and thick, clotted chords, before lapsing into a kind of delicate, impressionist haze. Drury was also involved in two pieces for larger ensembles. He conducted the Callithumpian Consort in the energetic and hard-edged “Pre-Pulse Suspended,” which showed off Hyla’s characteristically angular counterpoint. And he was the soloist in the Second Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra , with Charles Peltz conducting.

This wonderful piece could have been written under Bartok’s spell, so full is it of unexpected instrumental timbres and constantly shifting rhythms. Its funk backbeats, though, were Hyla’s own, a nod to his early days playing rock ‘n’ roll.

Rounding things out was a beautiful and complex song, “Wilson’s Ivory-bill,” for baritone, piano, and a field tape of said bird, an elusive woodpecker. It was performed by its dedicatees, baritone Mark McSweeney and pianist Judith Gordon.

The most striking characteristic of Hyla’s music Tuesday was its inexhaustible capacity to take a listener utterly by surprise. Moods and textures change on a dime. He has an astonishingly wide palette of sounds and gestures, and any of them could be lurking a few measures away, with little or no warning. It’s this sense of complete carte blanche that gives his music its essential vitality.

The composer could be seen on one side of the hall, often swaying from side to side in his seat as he listened to the expert performances of his music. The standing ovation at the end had the feeling not of farewell, but of valediction.