‘I feel like you lose the magic a little bit when I tell you what it all is,” the composer Robert Honstein confessed, laughing, on Saturday afternoon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain. Seated beside a string quartet representing the Boston Young Composers Ensemble, Honstein had been asked to explain how sounds and gestures in his 2013 piece “Arctic” corresponded to his impressions of the photographer Chris McCaw’s elaborate “Sunburn” series of Arctic Circle images.
Understand that Honstein was not complaining, but complicit. The ensemble billed its event, presented as part of the church’s JP Concerts series, as a “composium — part conversation, part concert” — an initiative intended to demystify contemporary music. The program featured three vital composers with local ties. Two — JP resident Honstein and Dartmouth professor Spencer Topel — were on hand to pitch in.
Responding to questions posed by violinist Sean Larkin, the ensemble’s assistant executive director, Honstein explained how bright tonality, fidgety repetitions, noisy scrapes, unexpected silences, and a lengthy second movement meant to outlast its welcome evoked McCaw’s scorched, segmented murals, which trace 24 hours of searing sunlight or ceaseless midnight gloom. Audience members with smartphones could scan a QR code on the concert program to view McCaw’s photographs.
Laudable as that effort was, it could have amounted to window dressing had the quartet — Larkin, violinist Ryan Shannon, violist Samuel Kelder, and cellist Joseph Gotoff — not provided a concentrated, convincing performance, abetted by the church’s excellent acoustic.
Interactivity proved even more beneficial on the concert’s second half, when flutist Michael Avitabile, the ensemble’s executive director, interviewed Topel before playing his “Details on the Strasbourg Rosace” (2014). Reading a program note about how Topel conceived pitch combinations and electronic-noise timbres to represent hues and black space in a stained-glass window, and how he meaningfully quoted a prismatic Scriabin piano sonata, obviously could be beneficial.
But hearing those elements demonstrated beforehand helped a listener to identify them in the context of Topel’s elegant aural frieze; seeing an illuminated digital image of the glorious window, you understood why Topel felt inspired. Avitabile and his colleagues — Larkin, Gotoff, clarinetist Diana Searle, and pianist Evan Allen — were elegant and exacting; Topel handled the electronic portion with a notebook computer, tucking small transducers inside the piano for acoustic amplification.
The third composer, Boston University graduate Missy Mazzoli, was unable to attend. But her brightly wheeling “Set That on Fire” — an artistic credo inspired by a Basquiat graffito — was an engagingly ecstatic calling card, in an animated rendition by Avitabile, Searle, Shannon, Allen, and trumpeter Sam Thurston.
Boston Young Composers Ensemble presents its next “composium” on Feb. 22 at Brown Hall, New England Conservatory, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafter