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The big dog: David Alan Miller.

Lost in Amplification

By B.A. Nilsson

Dogs of Desire

Picotte Recital Hall, Massry Center for the Arts, March 6

 

I’m guessing that the College of Saint Rose’s new Picotte Recital Hall has the excellent acoustics that befit a well-designed, 400-seat house. I’m guessing, because the amplification imposed on last week’s Dogs of Desire concert was so atrocious that the music was brutally disfigured—a testament to how thoroughly an incompetent sound engineer can ruin the work of so many talented performers.

I’d love to see the same forces assembled again with only the absolutely necessary amplifiers—on synthesizer and electric bass—and hear the program as it ought to be heard, with conductor David Alan Miller shaping the dynamic balance from the podium. It’s one of the conductor’s responsibilities, and he should know better than to surrender it.

Should my fantasy concert take place, I’d skip one of the works. David Mallamud’s Immram, which received its premiere on Friday, was the big piece of the night—big in its ambition, to pay tribute to the stories of sea voyages given that title in Irish legend, and big in length, easily twice as long as the typical Dogs commission is requested to be.

In its eagerness to salute this style of balladry, the piece—a dozen numbers, more or less alternating between vocals and instrumentals—became a weak pastiche of such songs, sounding like an overblown Evening at Pops. With busy synthesizer player Chris Oldfather moving from accordion to harp to harpsichord, and vigorous drumming from percussionist Mark Foster, we swept from one long strophic song to another, punctuated by jigs and reels and hornpipes.

The mission of a Dogs piece, as I understand it, is to explore and meld and reinterpret the amazing amount of musical variety that classical music tends to exist apart from; Immram sounded too caught up in its own cleverness, and ended up a mere simulacrum of traditional Irish song.

The encore that followed—Arthur Bloom’s brief “That’s The Way I Like It”—is an old favorite with the group, and a perfect example of such melding. The song by KC and the Sunshine Band finds resonance with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 with a funny, unfussy effect.

Among the other new works presented, Luis Tinoco’s Sea of Tranquility was the most successful. Exploring the evening’s theme of voyages, Tinoco looked at the 1969 moon landing, gathering spoken texts that ranged from classic science fiction to Apollo mission transcripts.

Spoken by the excellent vocalists Alexandra Sweeton and Kamala Sankaram (whose work was ruined by the amplification), the words wove in and out of an orchestral wash initially reminiscent of Ligeti before breaking into Stravinsky-esque rhythms, showing Tinoco to be a fine orchestral craftsman.

Evan Hause’s Passage was a fairly formal work setting an original text inspired in part by a century-old poem by Henry Van Dyke about Henry Hudson’s final voyage, in search of the Northwest Passage, that ended in mutiny and left the explorer and a few others abandoned in icy waters.

Much of Hause’s text is a dialogue between Hudson and his son (who also was abandoned in the mutiny), and the confluence of those voices, over an uneasy, Berg-ian orchestra, was a captivating effect. The piece is very dense and probably would reward repeated listening.

The 18-piece orchestra was the star of Dan Visconti’s Low Country Haze, imagining the unfamiliar sounds of nature that Hernando de Soto’s 16th-century explorers must have heard in their trip through the American south. Had Debussy worked in the 21st century, he might have come up with some of the pizzicato and brushwork effects Visconti devised for the opening, that soon eased into an evocative tone poem that avoided the trap of slavishly reproducing obvious birdsong and the like.

Three older Dogs pieces were also part of the program. A welcome revisit from seven-string bass player (and dynamic composer) Dan Cooper gave us The Mass Inertia, in which a rap lyric gets a formal but still bumptious setting. Vocalist Carolyn Kelly was terrific at intoning the words, carefully set in a welter of rhythmic excitement, with the repeated “no occupation, job or station” gaining more current-events significance this year.

Ken Eberhard’s Five Haiku for Daytime Television features brief, sardonic poems that probably serve to expiate his sin of writing music for that genre; it’s sardonic and amusing and proves that daytime TV has in no way robbed him of his compositional chops.

And Roshanne Etezady’s Start It Up melds the idea of the freedom of motorcycle riding with the sobering feeling of aging, a jazz-inflected piece with plenty of rhythmic propulsion, its melodic voice giving way to the occasional pat phrase of commercial jingles.

As ever, the Dogs of Desire offered a fascinating tour of contemporary musical voices, and have found what has the potential to be an appropriate performance space. But please kill the amplification next time.

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