The Noonday Concerts series, presented at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Thursdays, has everything going for it. The concerts are free and short enough to fit into a lunch hour, with enough time left over to pick up a sandwich (they run from 12:15 p.m. to 12:50 p.m.). More importantly, the programming, which is overseen by the Portland Conservatory of Music, is consistently high in quality, with Portland’s best chamber groups and soloists turning up regularly.

They are also pleasantly freewheeling. Classical music dominates, but jazz groups perform on the series as well. This Thursday, the series expanded its horizons more broadly to take in World Music as well. Zapion, an ensemble that specializes in Middle Eastern music, presented a concise overview of its repertory, touching on the music of Sufi mystics, classical Arabic and Persian forms, and Turkish nightclub styles.

Zapion was founded by Eric LaPerna, a percussionist who specializes in Middle Eastern drumming (he is the director of Bowdoin College’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble), and who named the group after a Greek tavern frequented by his mentor Udi Alan Shavarsh Bardezbanian. LaPerna was joined on Thursday by Nathan Kolosko on the oud, an Arabian lute; violinist Sarah Mueller, and Maria Wagner, who played the Persian ney (an end-blown wood flute) through most of the concert, switching to clarinet for the Turkish nightclub pieces.

Listeners with ears attuned to Western conventions are bound to find an elegant simplicity in the music Zapion champions. For the most part, it is homophonic — that is, the oud, violin and ney tend to double up on the melodies (sometimes with the ney playing an octave higher), with no counterpoint, and therefore no real tension between the instrumental lines.

But that apparent simplicity is deceptive, and you quickly realize – as you do with Indian music and other Asian styles – that you have to set Western expectations aside. The music uses modal scales, for starters, that are unlike the Western diatonic scale and have an entirely different emotional character. In the Sufi music especially – but also in the Arabic classical pieces – melancholy and ecstasy are often intertwined.

Rhythms and tempos change frequently, and often suddenly. And though Zapion mostly adhered to unison textures, the players occasionally reconfigured that arrangement, so that individual instruments briefly took the lead, while the others provided accompaniments that simply established support (or in a few cases, a light drone), with LaPerna’s gently tactile percussion as a consistent underpinning.

The most pleasing moments were in the Persian classical section, in which Kolosko offered a short but richly detailed improvisation, and in the Turkish nightclub selections, where Wagner’s clarinet timbres held the spotlight in melodies that sounded only a few steps removed from klezmer tunes, and where sharp accenting gave the music a spirited quality that set it apart from the more meditative Sufi and classical pieces.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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