Four movements of a coastal symphony

Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort. Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort. (Justin Knight)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 20, 2010

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It was a dreary, drizzly night on Thursday, but anyone fortunate enough to stop by the Gardner Museum’s Tapestry Room was greeted with a warm Pacific breeze.

How else to describe the serene, seamless flow of four works by Californian and Alaskan composers that made up the Callithumpian Consort’s program titled “Left Coast’’? Of course, there is no single unifying Pacific aesthetic, but it was impossible to miss the tactile richness and mellow colorings that ran through very distinct works by John Luther Adams, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, and Terry Riley. They were played here as one extended offering, without breaks for applause, a kind of four-movement West Coast Symphony.

The opening selection, from Adams’s “Songbirdsongs,’’ made the strongest impression. Adams is a composer whose career has been defined by a deep musical and spiritual engagement with the natural world. And as with Messiaen in earlier decades, birdsongs for Adams were an early point of entry, awakening, as he wrote in his recent book, “a profound longing to feel at home in nature.’’ He composed the “Songbirdsongs’’ over five years in the 1970s, based on many hours of listening in the field, opening his ears in a Cagean sense to both the noise of nature and the nature of noise.

Whether by accident or by design, the Callithumpian players began the piece before the concert’s official start-time, so anyone drifting in close to 7 p.m. encountered the work as one might come upon a spot in the forest that is already buzzing with activity. Three percussion players (Nicholas Tolle, Jeffrey Means, and John Andress) attended to the rustling sonic underbrush, while two piccolos (Jessi Rosinski, Ashley Addington), playing from various spots in the room, rendered the counterpoint of the canopy.

In contrast to Messiaen’s birds, who often sing with a jagged modernist edge — in “The Quartet for the End of Time’’ they are harbingers not of spring but of the apocalypse — Adams’s birds are taken on their own terms. He appears intent on preserving a kind of experiential authenticity, reproducing if not the precise microtonal contours of birdsongs, then at least the peaceful feeling of walking in the woods. The plaintive calls of Thursday’s mourning doves sounded particularly true.

Once those calls drifted into silence (or, more accurately, into the background noise from the “Gardner After Hours’’ party happening one floor below) cellist Benjamin Schwartz and harpist Franziska Huhn eased into the soft-spoken melody that opens Harrison’s 1949 Suite for Cello and Harp, a lovely work of modest scale and gentle spirits.

Tenney’s experimental “Swell Peace’’ of 1967 was next. It devolves most creative authority to the performers, providing them with only written instructions designed to strip the music of expressive drama in order to focus the ears on small changes in the texture of sound, an aim duly realized on Thursday night. The Callithumpians’ coastal tour ended with a rewarding if at times slightly tentative performance of Riley’s minimalist landmark “In C,’’ sounding often more mellow than roiling, in part no doubt thanks to its company.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

THE CALLITHUMPIAN CONSORT At: Gardner Museum, Thursday night