Five Nights of New Music, From Gentle to Terrifying

02nd Apr 2020

The festival’s three headliner composers received a concert apiece over the following evenings, programs that featured fresh or rarely heard pieces by the American Minimalist John Luther Adams; Jürg Frey, a Swiss member of the Wandelweiser collective; and Georg Friedrich Haas, Austrian-born but now living in New York.

That these composers drew bigger crowds was natural. (What else are international reputations good for?) But while the compositional polish was evident compared with the sets devoted mostly to student works, it wasn’t a jarring shift; the difference was more a matter of degree than of kind, a compliment to the students.

On Thursday, the JACK Quartet gave the New York premiere of Mr. Adams’s “Everything That Rises.” As with his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Become Ocean,” there was a meditative patience here that evoked the natural world. But unlike “Ocean,” the dramatic pivots in this new piece were less obvious. Instead of employing grand changes in volume, “Everything That Rises” finds Mr. Adams exploring dissonance and just-intonation tuning, in the gentlest of ways.

The piece is dominated by variations on an ascending figure that ends in a trill. In staggered fashion over the course of an hour, the members of the JACK brought this motif into successively higher partials of different fundamental notes. As one string instrument lagged behind or shot ahead of the others, the effect was pleasingly druggy: dissonant, but not in an overpowering way. (Mr. Adams says he selected these intervals so they wouldn’t produce “edgy growls.”) When the players briefly aligned in the same harmonious cloud, there was a sense of release — if one that seemed hard-won and fleeting.

On Friday, the Bozzini Quartet gave a program that is already represented on a recording, though when it comes to the frequently quiet and sparely organized work of Mr. Frey, the music’s presence in a concert hall can lend an extra degree of magic. With the Bozzini players and two percussionists stranded at far edges of the resonant DiMenna hall, the repeating motifs from Mr. Frey’s 2006 piece “Unhörbare Zeit” (“Inaudible Time”) sounded unusually lavish. Even better was his String Quartet No. 3, written in 2014. Though the work is as superficially reserved as Mr. Frey’s other pieces, it takes flight in surprising ways. Toward the end, a brief viola solo attained a moody grandeur worthy of the late Romantics.

The final curveball thrown by Time Spans was the fact that Mr. Haas was not the true star on Saturday, at the evening involving his music. That honor went to his wife, Mollena Lee Williams-Haas, who wrote and voiced the role of the Storyteller in their collaborative work “Hyena.” As a gripping autobiographical tale that charts Ms. Williams-Haas’s journey from alcoholism to recovery, it occasionally seemed to have little need of music.

The Talea Ensemble returned to give Mr. Haas’s score a forceful performance, though in humorous moments the music sounded a bit stumped. Still, during more straightforwardly dark highlights — as when Ms. Williams-Haas narrated the birth of the work’s terrifying title character — a morphing fortissimo soundscape provided ideally hallucinatory support.

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