You’d expect a group calling itself Sandbox Percussion to take a playful approach to music — and you’d be right, as this New York-based quartet proved Sunday in a sophisticated but seriously fun afternoon of contemporary music at the Phillips Collection.
Focusing on works written, more or less, last week by composers the group knows and works with, Sandbox brought out the immediacy, lack of pretension and high-end playfulness that seems — thankfully — to be revitalizing the world of contemporary music. And their jaw-dropping virtuosity made it all seem like . . . well, child’s play.
The afternoon opened with stark simplicity: Steve Reich’s 1973 “Music for Pieces of Wood.” The work is as spare as its title, played with mallets on four small boards held by the players. But as the simple pulse it opens with is gradually extended, layers of rhythmic patterns build and shift against one another, growing with a kind of clockwork into an immense, implacable and deliriously expanding cathedral of sound.
A work by Sandbox member Jonny Allen followed — the rolling, bluesy “Sonata” was captivating, with a sensuality rare in percussion music. But it was Andy Akiho’s “LIgNEouS1” — for which Ian David Rosenbaum on marimba was joined by the Amphion String Quartet — that revealed some of the afternoon’s most colorful imagination (and bravura playing). From its scherzolike third movement (which was played first; it’s a work in progress) to its elegiac second and driving, wildly intense first movement, it was clear that Akiho commands a vividly imagined sound world of exceptional depth and scope.
The four Sandbox players returned to form a circle around chimes and a bass drum for “Extremes,” an intricate work by Jason Treuting, one of the founders of the illustrious So Percussion ensemble. David Crowell’s “Music for Percussion Quartet” came next, contrasting the jangled rhythms of New York with meditative, shimmering sounds drawn from the composer’s time in Alaska.
The afternoon closed, as it began, with Reich. Sandbox played the composer’s iconic “Drumming (Part 1)” with such infectious vitality that an august audience member (94 years young, we were told) leapt to his feet for an impromptu jig in the aisle — a totally appropriate response. A roaring standing ovation brought Sandbox back for an encore, Akiho’s lilting “Karakurenai.”