The composer Petr Kotik is also an adventurous conductor who founded and directs both the S.E.M. Ensemble, based in New York, and the Ostravska Banda, based in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic. Every now and then Mr. Kotik brings his groups together, as he did on Wednesday evening at Zankel Hall. As in previous collaborations, their chemistry was just about perfect.
The program was varied, if on the long side, at nearly three hours, and if it had a unifying notion, it was an odd one: that the soloist in a concerto (or a concertolike work) need not be the work’s principal focus. True, keeping the soloist from monopolizing the spotlight is an unusual, almost nihilistic approach to concerto writing. But listening to both Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1988) and John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), you become so enmeshed in the string, woodwind and percussion textures that you can forget, for long stretches, that the piano is the solo instrument.
The same could be said of Alex Mincek’s brash, rhythmically elastic “Pendulum #7,” which has a central saxophone line, performed here by the composer. And though Luca Francesconi’s “Riti Neurali” is scored for solo violin and an ensemble that mirrors the instrumentation of the Schubert Octet, Hana Kotkova’s fiery account of the violin line was generally subsumed in the general mayhem.
That said, if you suppress any expectations of virtuosic derring-do, these scores offer ample riches. The Ligeti is a fascinating study of quickly changing harmonic and rhythmic density, with ear-catching juxtapositions. In its slow movement, for example, rapidly bowed, muted string figures were overlaid with shrill woodwind timbres, and within that high-contrast fabric a quiet, intensely chromatic piano line created an air of mystery. Daan Vandewalle, the pianist, gave an assured performance that blossomed in the finale, where Ligeti gives the instrument greater prominence.
In the Cage, the piano part, played here by Joseph Kubera, is whatever the player makes of it: the soloist builds it by choosing from a compilation of 64 short pieces. The ensemble players have similar leeway, working from graphic notation that includes the instruction, “Any number of pages may be performed, including none at all.” Obviously, no two performances will sound alike, and the possibility of a train wreck looms. Curiously, Mr. Kotik and company made the work sound entirely coherent, with plentiful interplay and internal dialogue.
The program opened with Mr. Kotik’s “In Four Parts 3, 6 & 11 (For John Cage),” a percussion trio that explores shifting timbres and tempos compellingly.
The evening’s most consistently alluring piece, though, was Carolyn Chen’s “Wilder Shores of Love,” a quiet but lush meditation inspired, Ms. Chen wrote, “by the sweeping motions of both Cy Twombly’s paintings and the Pacific Ocean.” Ms. Chen captured that sense of motion in steady, almost Impressionistic waves of crescendos and diminuendos (or sometimes just the crescendos), and in an alluringly nebulous harmonic language.
Perhaps most crucially, the work afforded a few moments of relative serenity and unity amid the wildness of the rest of the program.