Innovative concert programming does not always require re inventing the wheel. Scott Nickrenz , music director at the Gardner Museum, made an inspired decision when he chose to partner with George Steel , the imaginative New York impresario who made Columbia University's Miller Theatre a hip new-music destination.
One of Steel's most critically successful ideas has been his Composer Portraits series, which offers programs devoted to a single composer whose work is seldom heard in large doses -- typically mavericks of 20th-century music or fresh voices from the 21st. The Gardner Museum is now in its third year of presenting installments from that series, and Friday night's exhilarating program offered the music of New York composer David Lang, performed by the fearless young ensemble So Percussion.
A founding member of the influential composers collective Bang on a Can, Lang writes hard-driving music that is powered by complex yet ear-friendly grooves. He likes to remind his listeners that the tradition of cultivated percussion music has a long pre-history: people have been banging on things for thousands of years. Lang's best work taps into the primal, unsublimated joy of banging while organizing that joy in intricate ways that challenge the ear and quicken the mind.
So Percussion's Jason Treuting opened the program with a mesmerizing performance of Lang's "Anvil Chorus," inspired by the carefully coordinated hammering of blacksmiths. In "String of Pearls," a new work for solo marimba, Adam Sliwinski expertly parsed off-kilter rhythms and gave handsome shape to fast volleys of notes. "Little Eye" was a curiously affecting work that centered on wandering, melancholic cello lines (played by Florent Renard-Payen ) and a sotto voce chorus of what sounded like scraping metal. Ken Thomson joined on bass clarinet for "Cheating, Lying, Stealing."
The program's entire second half was given over to the local premiere of Lang's "so-called laws of nature." Written for So Percussion, it is over 30 minutes in length and requires the contents of several gardening sheds, a local junk yard, and your grandmother's tea cabinet. Or so it seemed from the fantastic tangle of instruments on stage: walnut planks, tuned steel pipes, tea cups, flower pots, brake drums , and much more. The work opens with an astonishingly loud unison section and ends with the ornately patterned plinking of the tea cups and flower pots. In between is a tour de force of minutely scripted anarchy and glorious noise, rendered by So Percussion with amazing force and precision.
The use of so many found objects in "so-called laws" also lends the piece a vaguely subversive Cagean air, as if to suggest that there is music stored up in the least likely of places, as if to say that our most mundane possessions have secret lives as instruments, just waiting patiently to be banged.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.