yMusic connects with their music through performance in a way that I have rarely seen before. With yMusic’s current residency at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, students have the chance to work alongside the ensemble and cultivate their own vision. And even though I don’t have the extreme fortune of working alongside them, their concert alone left me enlivened.

The first work of the evening, “Tesselations” by Gabriella Smith, opened a portal to the world of yMusic. Beginning with hand-drumming on the cello, gutsy accents in flute, string glissandi imitating vocal whooping, and woody ricochet bowing, it’s obvious that this is no run-of-the-mill classical music concert. “Tesselations” is also the opening track on their 2020 album Ecstatic Science. Clearly enjoying their return to live performances, yMusic’s fluid musicianship was nothing short of spellbinding. Before their second work, “Ecstatic Science” by Missy Mazzoli, violist Nadia Sirota shared that this concert was largely dedicated to catching up with their audiences and performing the works they spent time refining during the pandemic.

Alongside works by prominent contemporary composers, the group also showcased three original works. Recalling the group’s journey, trumpet player CJ Camerieri shared how the instrumentation of their sextet made finding music particularly challenging. Instead of having access to an existing repertoire, yMusic relied solely on commissions and collaboration with composers and friends for 11 years. It wasn’t until working with American musician Paul Simon that the group was encouraged to write their own music. Camerieri had this to share about each piece: “Flood” is not pronounced like the word “flood” but like “flewd”, “Sober Miles” explores what yMusic would sound like if Miles Davis was the trumpet player, and “Zebras” is titled such for no reason at all. Colorful, imaginative, and a little silly, each short work revealed another facet of yMusic’s inventive style.

Separated by an intermission, the last two pieces of the evening felt like mirror opposites of each other. Both works start with small elements. “Together” by Judd Greenstein starts with a simple flute motive, which accumulates more material the longer it’s present. The same is true for the viola and trumpet when they enter in sequence. “Difference” by Grammy nominee Andrew Norman starts with only repeating variations on a single note. However, the mood of each piece diverges dramatically. The optimism of “Together” coalesces into a florid prance with a hint of Latin groove, but the initial instability of “Difference” only intensifies. As each player separated from the group and chased their own trail of notes, the texture of the piece became complicated, opaque, and indiscernible. Melding their timbres together, the sextet found their footing again with a recurring organ theme. Cycling through new material and venturing in and out of clarity, the music eventually exhausts itself. After stretching out two whole minutes of isolated block chords, “Difference” ends as it started. Using quarter tones, yMusic created the sense that the music was either reverting or disintegrating until all that remained was repeating almost unisons.

Each piece on the evening’s program could easily stand alone as an enjoyable performance, but it was the confluence of these works together that resulted in such an inspiring concert. As masterful as yMusic was in performance, I never got the impression that mastery was the highest goal of their work. Their willingness to take charge of the creative process and still foster such an affable personality throughout the performance shows great respect for the process. With such an influential array of collaborators, yMusic is sure to remain leaders in the future of instrumental music.