On a balmy spring-like evening, neighbors strolled past, looking curiously through the front window of the café. The Baltimore based AM/PM Saxophone Quartet joined a collective of musicians and composers, Rhymes With Opera, presenting new chamber music and opera. In a bit of a slow start the quartet opened with a set of three contemporary pieces, two by Duke graduate composers: “Possible Objects” (2007), by George Lam, and Kathleen Bader’s “Roadways” (2007). They also played Swedish composer and sound artist Mattias Sköld’s “Ups and Downs” (2007), a piece that resembled a decaffeinated version of Steve Reich’s “New York Counterpoint.”

RWO cranked up the energy beginning the second half with Juan Maria Solare’s work for four mimes, “Gestenstücke” (2008). Orff-trained public school music teachers would have applauded this delightful means of silencing a noisy audience. Looking us straight in the eye, there was no hint of performance anxiety — a great hook.

Thomas Limbert’s “Numbers/Dates” (“Anxiety Leading to Panic”) is a 2009 RWO commission. Simply constructed with minimal text (dates and numbers) and with a saxophone quartet as the “orchestra,” the singers speak, sing, shout. and completely draw the listener into their gradual, high-pitched crescendo that reflects our manic time-obsessed world. “Skeleton” (2009) for two sopranos, baritone, and recorded media, was composed by Ruby Fulton and Lam to a libretto by Trimble Wit; it is based on the writers’ skit for the “Stolen Heart Cabaret,” is a poignant story-within-a-story that takes place on a subway train. These compositions, both of which draw on contemporary urban themes, are relevant, moving, and attractive works of art.

George Lam refers to RWO’s collaborative work “Missed Connections” (2009) as a “public service announcement.” With text extracted from the local Craig’s List, singers are outfitted with laptops and seated among café patrons. I was reminded of Christian Wolff and Pauline Oliveros, composers who have historically embraced audience participation. We were invited to snap our fingers along with the speakers. It was an uncomfortable musical activity to maintain, however, and many of us dropped out to eavesdrop on the authentic yet humorous melodrama, complete with Lam as a trolling violinist and Fulton on accordion.

Breathing life into the work of the young composers, the singers and instrumentalists performed well. Elisabeth Halliday, Bonnie Lander, and Robert Maril were strong and fearless, and they had enough power to soar above the background of clanging dishes, scraping furniture, and general din of the busy café. Their polished performances and engaging stage presences completely won over the audience; there was genuine and enthusiastic approval. Equally skilled in their supportive role, and making it look easy, the sax quartet members provided a burnished, jazz-like texture that fit especially well in Limbert’s piece.

I’m reminded of the historical precedence: music-making in London taverns during the 17th century, for example. Perhaps we’ll experience more of this kind of music-making while we simplify our lives. Young, personable, friendly, and interested in community, George Lam has attracted an interesting circle of musicians and friends in Durham who packed Broad Street Café. Now completing his doctoral work at Duke University, he continues to surprise us with innovative programming, performed in interesting venues. He and co-artistic director Ruby Fulton have created an enterprising project — taking “new opera in unconventional places.”

The performance was the “kick-off” for their East coast tour, which includes Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia. To find out more click here.