David Hurwitz
March 8, 2004

Lee Hyla writes in a tremendously compressed style in which shape and gesture stand in for conventional melody despite an often clear tonal orientation. Rhythm also plays an important role in activating his musical textures and maintaining linear transparency, and it’s clear from a cursory listen to any of these three works that Hyla writes with a great deal of talent and confidence. The Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra begins sweetly with innocent murmurs, but the soloist evidently has anger-management issues and spends much of the work’s 11 minutes wailing like a demented saxophone. To Hyla’s credit, he never lets the violence run out of control, and the use of orchestral color in a linear context (in other words, he’s much more a “line guy” than a “chord guy”) is often quite striking.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this work--as well as Trans, the three-movement orchestral piece that follows--is that neither has recourse to percussion, so often a cliché in modern music. Trans achieves its compelling rhythmic propulsion using normal strings, winds, and brass, and while its outer movements have something of the Bass Clarinet Concerto’s violent demeanor, the contrasts are broader and the lines longer. Composed in 1996, eight years after the concerto, it shows Hyla’s compositional range expanding to the point where in the Violin Concerto of 2001 we have what strikes me as a flat-out masterpiece in the genre. In this single-movement, 24-minute work, an extensive percussion section makes its first appearance, providing an effective foil to the predominantly lyrical lines of the soloist. There are exquisite moments here, often reminiscent of the Berg Concerto but with a Stravinskian rhythmic energy cloaked in an abrupt musical syntax that’s strongly recognizable as Hyla’s own. I can’t recommend it to you highly enough.

As far as the performances go, Tim Smith plays an awesome bass clarinet solo in what sounds like a hellishly difficult part. Violin soloist Laura Frautschi certainly offers accuracy (which is itself an achievement), but her timbre, though sweet, is quite small and the work seems to ask for a more generous emotional outpouring. In all three cases, Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project rise bravely to the occasion, and no matter how disjointed the music becomes, they never make an ugly sound or lose sight of where the music is going--and make no mistake, Hyla both knows where he wants to go and how to get there. Excellently detailed, well balanced sonics round out a most welcome portrait of a fascinating composer who could well become a major voice in contemporary music.

By David Hurwitz,