By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
It’s a good thing the sirens that wailed through Zankel Hall on Friday didn’t signal an emergency: The auditorium was so densely packed at the start of So Percussion’s late-evening concert that it would have taken a while to evacuate. But there was no danger mistaking these piercing sounds, produced on hand-cranked sirens by the ensemble’s members, Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting, for anything other than the opening fanfare of a performance that would prove entertaining, virtuosic, occasionally lyrical, but most often joyfully loud.
The sirens were the opening shot in a set of “Drumkit Quartets” by the percussionist-composer Glenn Kotche, who is best known for his work with the alt-rock band Wilco. These quartets, which feature a battery of instruments outside the standard drum kit, tease out the different parameters that govern ensemble playing, like synchronicity, imitation, competition and symmetry. They also show off Mr. Kotche’s command of mood and texture, from the hard-edged aggression of “Drumkit Quartet No. 1” (with strobelike video imagery by Patrick Burns) to the gamelanlike sensuality of “Drumkit Quartet No. 3.”
Mr. Kotche joined the So players for the world premiere of “Migrations,” a beautiful and intimate work that marries hypnotic rhythms reminiscent of Steve Reich with warm, delicate marimba sounds produced with fingertips and pocket combs.
The concert’s second half was headlined by Shara Worden, a vocalist who, like Mr. Kotche, moves effortlessly between the worlds of indie rock and contemporary classical music. She joined the So players in Steven Mackey’s “Before It Is Time,” a sort of prequel to his composition “It Is Time,” which So Percussion recorded for a 2011 album. Where that work opened with a metronome, “Before It Is Time” is built around a two-note click that sounds like a clock’s second hand imitating — or mocking — a heartbeat. Around this the instrumentalists built up an angular, layered score, infused with tropical colors underneath Ms. Worden’s helium vocals.
“Timeline,” a 45-minute set of songs composed by Ms. Worden and the So members, concluded the concert. While this music seeks out the sort of timbral variety that Mr. Kotche had drawn from the ensemble, the instrumental score often sounded diffuse, and the songs two-dimensional.
The most successful moments were those with a clear focus. There was a beguiling duet between Ms. Worden and Mr. Quillen, who can make a set of steel drums speak like a harp or an organ. In another song, all four So players gathered around a single bass drum with some smacking its side, while Ms. Worden darkened her voice to match the sounds reverberating off skin and metal.