Although Great Noise Ensemble has earned a reputation as an ambitious fixture of Washington’s new music scene, its performances and repertoire choices vary in quality.
Friday night’s concert inaugurated the group’s residency at the Atlas Performing Arts Center and was themed after the opening piece, Randall Woolf’s “Urban Legends,” which appealed more in theory than in practice.
That Woolf combined taped rappers with chamber orchestra wasn’t problematic — classical and hip-hop mergers aren’t unusual. But the accompaniment, in design and performance, was unimaginatively matched to the powerful, socially conscious texts.
There was also unevenness to Andrew Simpson’s Double Concerto (for violin and guitar). Playing up the folk and classical sides of both instruments was a good idea, but by piling on too many styles and textures, the concerto lost focus. The guitar, barely audible throughout, remained faceless. Only the second movement, infused by flamenco elements and energetic playing by violinist Andrea Vercoe, satisfied.
Fortunately, the ensemble roared back after intermission with two strong pieces and performances. David Smooke’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” inspired by crime scene dioramas, is essentially a mischievous, 15-minute concerto for toy piano. The composer sat at his tiny blood-red instrument, producing a Pandora’s box of eerie sounds by bowing (threading a single string through its guts) and pawing the insides, as if scratching an itch. A foghorn tolled eerily in the bassoon, while winds and strings creaked.
Stefan Freund’s confidently scored “Three Urban Images” conjured scenes from a seedy Rochester, N.Y., neighborhood. Jolts of jazzy rhythms fueled the outer movements, where percussionist Chris DeChiara shined. The central panel sported a film noir feel, thanks to effective ensemble playing and the evocative bassoon of Alan Michels. Freund achieved an impressive American, almost Bernstein-like sound.
Without doubt, the young Great Noise Ensemble is unafraid of risks. And for that, music lovers in Washington can be thankful.