There a lot of angles to a review of an entire evening of diverse works by Lawrence Dillon, currently Composer-in-Residence at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Too often, the threat…, ugh, the promise of New Music, including many premieres, is enough to require a press gang to paper the hall. Dillon has never been of the dry, formulaic serial school that scared off audiences for nearly a century. A composer has to be free to use anything from the creative “bag of tricks” to express his vision. The large audience in Watson Hall heard a rich variety of music, song, and spoken word. It was certainly a program guaranteed to cause reflection.

According the program notes, Dillon is fascinated by the fact “music… has no trouble standing on its own” but can also “meld with any other activity,” enhancing everything it touches. The title of this program, Telling Tales, covers five parts: “two story-telling pieces, “Entrance” and “Exit,” frame a classically structured piano quartet, a tender love song, and a wild work of nightmarish visions.” All the pieces except the second (“What Happened” (2005)), were composed over the course of this past summer, and all but two of them were receiving their world premieres. The composer meant them to complement one another. The sandwiching pieces using actors “tell stories of life before and after the concert,” linking “the concert experience and life itself.”

“Entrance” premiered with actress Cinny Strickland Graham delivering a story about “an audience member whose mind wanders away from the music.” The scoring was transparent, “almost all treble,” and featured flutist Elizabeth Ransom, alto flutist Rebecca Nussbaum, violinist Jacqui Carrasco, violist Sheila Browne, and pianist Allison Gagnon.

“What Happened” had been “premiered by the Atlantic Ensemble at the Maison danoise of the Cité Universitaire in Paris. It is a piano quartet in three movements: “Gathering,” “Congregation,” and “Scattering.” “Each movement is a different reaction to the shock of bad news.” Pianist Gagnon was joined by violinist Kevin Lawrence, violist Browne, and cellist Adele O’Dwyer. There is a lovely solo line for the viola, and there are some fine high notes for the violin. It is a work well worth repeated hearings.

“Still Point” was commissioned by author Shona Simpson as an homage for her husband, Jonathan Burdette, an amateur violist. It had been premiered in their home two weeks ago. Simpson’s sonnet about the fleet passing of life and time served as the text for mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley, accompanied by violist Browne and pianist Todd Rocco. The prominent viola part was gorgeous. This was a very successful song.

Composer Dillon appeared as conductor for a large ensemble of ten instruments for the longest work on the program, “Dark Circles.” This work “uses chords, rhythmic figures, and fragments of melody from each of the other pieces.” Allusions to the composer’s insomnia, to the preponderance of dark instrumental colors, and to “the way the musical ideas continually circle back upon themselves” are reflected in the title of the work. Pianist Robert Rocco and all the other non-keyboard players mention above were joined by baritone saxophonist Taimur Sullivan, trumpeter Judith Saxton, and double-bassist Paul Sharpe. This work’s broad palette of unique colors, the juxtaposition of instruments, the complex rhythms, and the wide dynamic range whetted the appetite for repeated hearings. Bravo!

The last work, “Exit,” was an “over-the-top” experience, especially for a chamber music concert. The music scoring was a winner, a sort of cool jazz combo with deep bass pizzicatos from Sharpe, spare chords from pianist Rocco, mellow alto sax from Sullivan, muted trumpet from Saxton, and some unusual licks from cellist O’Dwyer. But how well will the wild text, “delivered” on this occasion by actor Robert Beseda, hold up as a repeated experience? Dillon describes “Exit” as “a quick spin through an entire life cycle…, a metaphorical journey from birth to death and beyond.” I will sketch what it was like. Beseda burst through a door beside the stage and leaped on it like a madman. His intense, unpunctuated rant was like a daughterless Lear with all of his madness focused upon conventional concert-going experience and, somehow, life. I would love to hear the music again but I did not slap every car outside to set off alarms, I did not pick up and obsess over a found gum wrapper, neither did I propose to the first woman I saw. Those were just some strands in that mad scene. You might keep an eye out and rush to buy tickets if Beseda does do Lear!

Very extensive notes and background for this unique concert can be found here at the composer’s blog. Except for the poem “Still Point,” none of the texts was included in the otherwise extensive program notes. Dillon’s spoken word texts can be found at Click on “Selected Works” and choose either “Entrance” or “Exit.”