Any festival worth its keep will deepen and intensify as it goes. So it was for the second evening of the Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music underway at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Last night, three veteran local ensembles were showcased: Dinosaur Annex, Collage New Music, and Cantata Singers. A good-size crowd showed at both concerts. Deadline pressures required an early exit before the end of the night, but this double bill had already lived up to high expectations.
The night began with a Dinosaur Annex program that was thoroughly entertaining - a word you won't find often in reviews of serious new-music concerts. But composer (and conductor) Scott Wheeler's assembly of works had a high wit and whimsy quotient, beginning with his own delightful setting for bass (here, David Kravitz) and tenor (Frank Kelley) of Kenneth Koch's "
Barbara White's work "My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon" was the one straight-laced piece on the program; its spare textures and delicately etched piano runs gave it a post-impressionistic feel, but it would have been stronger at a fraction of the length. Richard Beaudoin's "Eunoia Songs" were highly skilled settings of five poems by Christian Bök that had the audience laughing in their seats, thanks to Bök's orthographic virtuosity: Each poem uses only a single vowel but still manages to romp around with abandon ("such tumult upturns unsunk hulls").
For his new "Danca da Tranquilidade," Brian Robison imagined a "low-gravity samba" danced across the surface of the moon. The work's dazed, off-kilter repetitions and halting instrumental dialogue brought the image across, with help from a prominent theremin part performed last night by the composer.
The freewheeling and sometimes raucous collage of "Alice Hawthorne in memoriam," by the microtonalist Ezra Sims, ended the first program on an appropriately light note.
In the second concert, conducted by David Hoose, three of the works were by Donald Sur, a Boston composer who died in 1999 and whose music has an affectionate place in the repertoire of both Collage and Cantata Singers. Last night's program opened with his dry-witted "Satori on Park Avenue" (of 1984), which tries to conjure a tale of New York socialites watching King Kong and discovering existential truths. Written only eight years earlier but hailing from a different harmonic universe was "Catena III," a game of fast-paced instrumental tag.
Yehudi Wyner's "On this most voluptuous night" is an arresting setting of poetry by William Carlos Williams (persuasively sung by soprano Karyl Ryczek), full of lean harmonies and sinewy expressive writing. The first movement, with its silvery sonorities and hushed violin arpeggios, seems to breathe the air of Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht." David Rakowski's "Imaginary Dances" were fast, dense, and vigorous.
All of the evening's performances were first-rate, and the theater of the ICA has an acoustic that's sufficiently clear. During the second show, when both glass walls were exposed, there were moments when architecture and music had an uncanny resonance.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com