TIME:SPANS opener goes back to the future, from Schoenberg to Williams

Sun Aug 14, 2022 at 1:10 pm
Bassoonist Rebekah Heller performed Felipe Lara’s Metafagote Saturday night at the opening concert of TIME:SPANS 2022. File photo: Michael Yu

TIME:SPANS 2022, the annual festival of contemporary music, opened this year’s extensive installment Saturday night at the DiMenna Center with something new—which in this context was something old. Dedicated to a primary focus on 21st-century compositions (it is presented, as always, by the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust), the centerpiece of the night was Arnold Schoenberg’s Kammersinfonie (Chamber Symphony), Op. 9, from 1906. 

Along with that, the ensemble was something old as well. TIME:SPANS always has the absolute cream-of-the-crop groups; this year features Argento New Music Project, Bozzini Quartet, Ensemble Signal, Talea Ensemble, Yarn/Wire, and others.

But it was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, known for the 18th-19th century repertoire, that delivered a terrific concert. They played the Chamber Symphony and Amy Williams’ Telephone, sandwiching Rebekah Heller’s performance of Felipe Lara’s scintillating Metafagote, for solo bassoon.

As a whole, the night was also a refreshing new experience at the festival. The economics of 21st-century classical music mean that the people who get to write music and have it played, for the most part, are in or around conservatories and graduate programs. That makes for technical skill and frequently inventive ideas but also just as often music meant for an academic audience. Without skimping on quality and substance, the music and playing Saturday also had a sense of drama, and was played with the public-facing energy, of the classical and romantic eras.

Telephone and the Chamber Symphony were a fascinating pairing in conversation with each other across the decades—there could be a whole festival on how Schoenberg’s instrumentation and attitude, and the intervening years of movie and cartoon music, brought us to Telephone (2021). Williams conjured the essence of chaos as form and produced the vitality and fun that cartoon music is all about, while also balancing a clear thought-line in the piece.

Telephone was titled, and made after, the game where people try and pass along a phase by whispering it from ear to ear. The fun is to see how badly the words get mangled.

The fun with Williams’ piece came from how phases were passed through the ensemble, overtaken by others. It had the energy of a spring-mounted motor on a windup toy, and ended the same way, just abruptly coming to a halt. Orpheus put great energy into the performance, underlining both the serious intent and the sense of surprise—one quickly began to look forward to each unexpected turn and juxtaposition.

Metafagote is for a solo player and many voices—in this case, six other bassoon lines that Heller had prerecorded. The facilities of the DiMenna Center were ideal for this as speakers were arrayed around all the walls of the hall—not just on stage with Heller. With the audio accompanying and also facing Heller, the bassoonist was solo protagonist and antagonist to herself. At a basic level, this was lively in the extreme, the eyes and ears concentrating on Heller only to have the latter pulled away by the squeaking of a double reed from somewhere behind, or a flurry off to the left.

Lara’s composing balances this push and pull, the soloist both leading the mass of music and fighting against its willfulness. Heller is a masterful player, and one enjoyed her mellow woody tone just as much as one admired her skill with the music’s extended techniques. The language is abstract, but the music’s solid form connects passages like articulated key clacks and a very satisfying octave descent to make something like a solid box. This is an excellent work and one imagines it could not be played or presented better than it was Saturday.

Orpheus’ performance of the Chamber Symphony was superb. After the previous two pieces, the fanfare-like idea that runs through the piece sounded both of its time but also much more fun than one often hears in this piece. As much as he clothed himself in modernism, Schoenberg was a hyper-expressive romantic at heart, and the music is full of yearning, while that theme in particular, heard after a century of movies and TV and pop music, sounds almost tongue-in-cheek.

The tempo was quick, and exciting, and the ensemble’s clarity was exceptional, making it easy once again to follow all the twists and turns of the music. On top of all that, the physical and expressive vibrancy was high-level and, like the previous performances, one was drawn into the embracing drama of the music.

TIME:SPANS 2022 continues through August 27. timespans.org

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