The oddest entry on the Callithumpian Consort’s Wednesday concert was Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. This is not the way things work with most ensembles: Debussy’s 1915 work is supremely listenable and not infrequently encountered on chamber music programs.
But the Callithumpian Consort is not most groups. A loose confederation of musicians under the intrepid direction of pianist Stephen Drury, the group is dedicated to exploring every facet of the avant-garde, the more experimental the better. A standard on most programs - the Debussy, for example - seems out of place at a Callithumpian show, at least on first glance.
There was a good reason for its presence, though. All the works in the first half had those three instruments in common, providing a nice lesson on how innovation and tradition play off one another. After a coolly precise rendering of the Debussy came Nicholas Vines’s “Economy of Wax,’’ which adds a soprano and transforms the Debussy’s ethereality into a relentless buzz of activity. Vines sets a dense passage from Darwin’s “The Origin of Species’’ describing how bees construct a honeycomb. Adrienne Pardee was the brave soprano, though much of her part was pitched so high that the words were almost incomprehensible.
John Zorn’s “Orphée’’ added harpsichord, celesta, percussion, and electronics to the Debussy configuration. Anyone who knows Zorn’s punk/jazz aesthetic would be shocked by “Orphée,’’ which is incandescently scored and almost Romantic in its depiction of Orpheus’s visit to the underworld. The performance was a high point of the evening.
The second half began with Tristan Murail’s “Lachrymae,’’ premiered last year at Drury’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. Scored for flute, string quartet, and bass, it is a deeply expressive lament based on dissonant, slow-moving chords and stray wisps of melody. It was some of the evening’s most difficult listening, but it packed a heavy emotional punch.
Last on the program was “Confucius Becomes Popular,’’ a sound and video project by composer and visual artist Ikue Mori. The film takes inspiration from a series of Japanese picture books that offered social critique by using satire and the inversion of values. Mori’s animated film of these tales was entertaining if a bit long. The live score, for a large ensemble of instruments and electronics, seemed to be mostly improvised. It dragged in places but the rapt ending, whether planned or by chance, was beautiful.
The lengthy evening ended with an improvisatory duet between Mori, on electronics, and pianist Anthony Coleman, though Drury and an unnamed guitarist slipped onto the stage to get in on the sonic play.