The Callithumpian Consort brought three recent works by Lei Liang to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Thursday night in addition to pieces by Xiaoyong Chen and Luigi Nono. The program was entitled “Avant Gardner” and no matter how playfully intended, that probably didn’t convince many of the museum’s less adventurous concertgoers to show up. Nonetheless two balconies worth of new music aficionados were in attendance and rubbing elbows with young professionals from the Gardner After Hours soirée next door. The preconcert atmosphere was inviting and there was energy in the air — this felt like an event. As for the composers, Liang is a former longtime Boston resident and an NEC and Harvard graduate, no information was provided on Chen beyond a birth year of 1955, and Nono was a well-known Italian composer associated with the midcentury Darmstadt School.
The program opened with Liang’s Aural Hypothesis. It was immediately clear that this is the ensemble to listen to for music that makes unusual demands: every extended instrumental technique was convincingly executed and sounded “right” — from an orphaned clarinet mouthpiece to a detuned cello to other surprising sounds of indeterminate origin. While the success of these effects is a credit to Liang’s orchestrational wizardry, they would still sound ludicrous in the wrong hands. The Callithumpian players, under the baton of artistic director Stephen Drury, pulled it off with confidence and style.
The second work was Diary II for solo piano by Chen. Performed by Yukiko Takagi, it sounded more like sketchbook explorations than a crafted piece for public performance (perhaps this is suggested by the title). The first movement Crossing was brittle with dense ascending and descending scales while the second movement, Floating Point, was also primarily made up of unusual scales, this time mostly just falling downward on the keyboard, eventually with some off-kilter rhythmic variation. There were some genuinely promising harmonic features here, but it felt like musical material in need of a piece.
Next came Nono’s Omaggio a György Kurtág. In general Kurtág is associated with compositional brevity while Nono is known for seemingly interminable works mostly involving layered long tones. As it turned out, Nono chose not pay tribute to his colleague’s concision, but Callithumpian came through for the music: these wind players are experts at delivering long tones with all kinds of attacks, tapers, and timbres. Guest contralto Thee Lobo contributed a quasi-monastic vocal part, tubist Beth McDonald brought an especially warm glow to her bass notes, and John Mallia manipulated some unobtrusive live electronics. There are some really beautiful colors in this work and Nono also had the best ending of any piece on the program: a chilling evaporation that drew an audible gasp from someone in the crowd.
The final two works were by Liang. The first, Bamboo Lights, was a world premiere commissioned by Drury and Callithumpian for this concert. The program notes explain that it is “a memorial to my family members who have perished in the war.” But this was no elegy: scored for chamber orchestra, it began brashly and was far more violent than any other music heard during the evening. Generally the extended instrumental effects were even more successful here than in Liang’s opener — there was a kaleidoscope of timbre including brass mutes, elastic-sounding pizzicato glissandi, and an amazing crystalline color near the end involving a combination of piccolo, oboe, and high strings.
The final work, Brush-Stroke, was another commission from Callithumpian—this time dating back to 2005. Unfortunately it turned out to be a disappointment after Bamboo Lights: the effects here drew more attention to themselves, there were unmotivated climaxes, and shouting percussionists bordered on comical. Presenting this piece as the finale might have been an error in programing, but nevertheless hearing an older work provided insight into the development of Liang’s orchestrational techniques and his compelling mature aesthetic.