Classical music’s global summer season is full of destination-worthy presentations. In August, New York makes a contribution: The Time Spans Festival, a modern and contemporary-music event that is the equal of anything on the international circuit.
So after a couple weeks covering operas and starry premieres in Europe, I made sure to be home in New York for the first shows in this year’s festival, which runs through Aug. 26. It all takes place in the refreshingly cool, subterranean hall of the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Hell’s Kitchen.
Saturday’s opener was dedicated to works by the 20th-century composer Luigi Nono. This Italian modernist worked frequently with the resident electronic specialists of the SWR Experimentalstudio, a German public radio electronic studio from Freiburg. At the DiMenna Center, this group collaborated with musicians in Ensemble Experimental, giving these performances the feeling of deep investment and institutional know-how.
First up was “Omaggio a Emilio Vedova” from 1961. A fixed-media piece — for tape only — it was spatialized in the hall by the SWR technicians, with eight speakers surrounding the audience. And though just over four minutes in length, this slashing, vertiginous work made a strong impression: its brief metallic shards of prerecorded sound revolving around audience-member eardrums with a grace that made Nono’s supposedly harsh aesthetic seem balletic.
The short presentation also blasted into dust the recent, expensive and much-ballyhooed spatial-music presentation at the Shed, the Sonic Sphere. There, audience members were hoisted up into a giant dome, only to listen to a surround-speaker system with blurry low-end sonic fidelity. At the DiMenna Center, listeners kept their feet on the underground floor, but the whirling sound production was pristine — and transporting.
When live instrumentalists from Ensemble Experimental joined the fray, this sense of fun continued, even during gnomic works with generally quiet dynamics, like Nono’s “A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum” (1985).
Here, the subtle electronic processing of live instrumental playing was a consistent delight: When astringent live notes, played by a bass flutist and a bass clarinetist, came back around in the electronic part, they seemed somehow softened by the electronic merging and transformation. With those newly mellowed-out sounds crawling across the back of your head — courtesy of speakers in the rear of the room — the piece then turned its bass clarinetist loose, by asking for yawping but controlled overblowing from the reed player. (Here it was Andrea Nagy making those striated and punchy sounds.)
That piece and one that came next — “Omaggio a Gyorgy Kurtag” — have been recorded on a fine SWR release on the Neos imprint. But that’s a two-channel stereo recording. Here, as led by the guest conductor Brad Lubman, both took on greater depth in the immersive surround-sound setting.
The festival’s second night kept the European-experimentalist trend going, but in a fully acoustic fashion, with the JACK Quartet’s renditions of the second and third string quartets by Helmut Lachenmann.
Speaking from the stage between pieces, the violist John Pickford Richards described Lachenmann’s reputation as someone who makes Western classical instruments seethe and twitch in ways previously inconceivable. (His influence can be felt on other German composers of his generation, as well as adventurous American composers like David Sanford.)
Richards also noted that “Grido,” the third quartet, which the ensemble had just played, was one that the JACK instrumentalists had performed together before they were a formal group. And so they think of Lachenmann as a father of the ensemble.
That deep familial relationship was already apparent in JACK’s reading of that third quartet. That performance seemed to say: Forget everything you think you know about how weird this guy’s sound-production techniques are; just get lost in the confident, persuasive flow of these unusual ideas.
As on a recording for the Mode label, the JACK players proved they know how to get the most out of this pathbreaking music, savoring the crisscrossing flurries of steely motifs. (They did it with enviable clarity, creating a spatialized feel through purely acoustic means.) At other points, the violinist Christopher Otto in particular seemed to relish the brief touches of more familiar vibrato that Lachenmann allows into the piece.
Lachenmann’s second quartet, which on Sunday followed the third, came across more like a notebook of ideas — ideas that would later find their ideal expression in the third quartet. Still, it was a pleasure to experience such a focused, hourlong tour through this composer’s string writing.
And audiences seem to have caught on to the Time Spans model — of casual yet tightly plotted concerts, usually lasting an hour to 90 minutes, with no intermission. This weekend’s programs looked close to sold out. And affordable tickets, just $20, are still available to most remaining shows.
There are no dress codes, and no complicated advance-festival planning is required. In this way, Time Spans is part of the (necessary) genre-wide effort to make classical music more approachable. Crucially, the festival does that assuming that new audiences can handle new music.