A new-classical sextet known for pop-adjacent collaborations tackles a set of pieces that highlight its mission to convert new listeners to contemporary composition.
The yMusic ensemble has a long track record of reaching out to new audiences for contemporary classical music, collaborating with pop stars like Paul Simon and playing pieces written by artists such as Son Lux. Yet the group’s appeal is not limited to its crossover cachet. The sextet—for string trio, flute, clarinet, and trumpet—has also shown excellent taste in collaborating with composers known primarily to classical specialists.
They’re adept at playing to both sides of the aisle. On its debut album, the ensemble balanced work by Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) with that of the New Amsterdam label co-founder Judd Greenstein. The follow-up included pieces by Sufjan Stevens as well as Andrew Norman (whose major work “Sustain” recently helped the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel pick up a Grammy).
For its fourth full-length recording, the band’s contributor list is less pop-adjacent than it’s ever been, though it’s no less compelling for that fact. The 40-minute program begins and ends with pieces by the young composer Gabriella Smith—a smart programming move, as Smith’s pieces help define the album’s overall sense of serene locomotion.
Her opener, “Tessellations,” boasts a jaunty percussive pattern tapped out on the cello during its early going. Subsequent, soaring lines for flutist and occasional singer Alex Sopp provide a feeling of liftoff. At other points, the trumpet and clarinet collaborate on nimble staccato patterns, creating a regal quality that also seems casually assured.
At the piece’s close, the reappearance of the cello beat underlines the significant round-trip distance traveled, with a minimum of turbulence. That smooth-flight sensibility is a reliable constant on the album, even during pieces that have more dissonant harmonies, like Paul Wiancko’s richly textured “Thous&ths.”
Ecstatic Science wasn’t entirely written by up-and-comers. Missy Mazzoli has broken ground with her upcoming Metropolitan Opera commission; she is also an expert with shorter forms. On this album, her title track suits the group’s expressive range of performance styles. After initially toggling between blitzing melody and languid droning, Mazzoli’s composition bridges these divergent states without any hint of rough edges.
Perhaps the best known artist on this set is Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who has collaborated with Kanye West, but whose reputation has been primarily built on the basis of her own warmly experimental compositions. Her three-movement work “Draft of a High Rise” begins with hooky melodic fragments that feel as though they’re begging to be sung (perhaps by the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, which Shaw often works with).
This gift for melody is rarely the only winning element of her music; surprising pivots of harmony and new rhythmic patterns keep coming with a steadiness that might throw unseasoned interpreters. Thankfully, yMusic know this terrain so well that their performances have an untroubled gait—one that reflects their commitment to making new-classical music accessible to varied audiences. Programs of music that are this fluidly engaging aren’t in much need of pop-world assistance.