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Ensemble shines its light into the shadows of sleep

Dinosaur Annex opened its new season in darkness. ''Sleeping, Waking, Dreaming," a program presented at First Church on Sunday, brought together five works that explored the moods and textures of night, the shadows and edges of consciousness, the haunted feel of the nocturnal. If that sounds dour and gloomy, it wasn't. The pieces offered a varied array of sounds, textures, and techniques -- exactly the kind of demanding, ear-opening concert that this new-music group has been pulling together for 30 years.

The strongest works were the three played after intermission. Ruth Lomon's ''Shadowing" is a beautiful, tightly constructed piano quartet that has impulsive, swinging energy at the beginning and end and a hypnotic lament in the middle. The whole thing is anchored by booming piano chords, and they sounded especially resonant in the hands of Donald Berman, a terrific pianist who has a gloriously wide-open sound.

Stefan Hakenberg's ''Emergence" was written for bass clarinet and a small battery of percussion. The clarinet part explores every facet of the instrument's range and tone -- singing, shrieking, and muttering -- while the percussionist throws in sly rhythmic counterpoint from a snare drum, triangle, and rattles. The piece had a jazzy, improvisatory feel, like a dialogue between two friends whose conversation veers between the sophisticated and the mundane.

Arthur Levering's ''Still Raining, Still Dreaming," for six instruments, was the evening's most evocative work. It juxtaposes bouts of frantic motion with stillness, very much in the manner of Toru Takemitsu, to whose memory the piece is dedicated. Peals of thunder can be heard in the piano and raindrops in the strings, while the winds and chimes suggest a more rarefied and magical dreamworld. (In vain, though, did one search for references to the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name.)

The journey into night began with ''Nocturne," an eerie landscape for viola and electronics by Richard Cornell. The world premiere of Jeff Nichols's ''Wakefulness" followed, a setting for alto and chamber ensemble of a dense John Ashbery poem. The music was dense, too, lacking any discernible center or patterns. Ellen Rabiner lent her deep, richly textured voice to its unforgiving vocal line.

All the performances were tight and assured, just as Dinosaur Annex's listeners have come to expect.

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