John Kennedy’s music in time series showcases the best in 21st-century classical music

No Time Like the Present

Spoleto’s Music in Time series drags classical music into the here and now

Spoleto Festival USA didn’t become one of the nation’s top performing arts festivals because it hews to the safe and the tested and the familiar but because it’s known for taking artistic risks and pushing the envelope, often with world and American premieres, as with Philip Glass’ Book of Longing this year. Organizers often rely on proven quantities to do the risk taking — directors, composers, and performance artists who have a history of making silk purses out of what might have been sows’ ears. Even so, it inevitably leads to some failures, as risks must. Artists like Glass, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Mabou Mines’ Lee Breuer, Ong Gong Chen, Arthur Miller, and many more have made audiences bite their nails, blanch, bitch, and squirm over the years. But they’ve also made them gasp, melt, weep, and laugh at least as often.

Not all of that experimentation occurs on the big stages at the Gaillard and the Sottile. The most consistently forward-looking crucible in the festival is John Kennedy’s Music in Time series, which exists solely to explore the world of contemporary and new music. Kennedy is one of the deans of new music, not just in America but around the world, and he casts his net wide in filling the pioneering series. This year’s five programs – which all take place at 5 p.m. in the Simons Center’s Recital Hall — are stuffed full of new and crazily unconventional music, packed with premieres, and, as usual, offers up nearly as much theatre as it does music.

The first program (Sat. May 26) is dedicated entirely to the Colorado-based Bowed Piano Ensemble, a 10-member group who take a decidedly different approach to a standard set of ivories.

“The idea with a bowed piano is that it’s played mostly using fishing line, or monofilament, on the strings of the piano as if it’s a giant harp,” Kennedy explains, noting that the players remove the lid of the piano but don’t alter it in any other way. In addition to monofilament, players also use small felt hammers, similar to those that strike the piano strings normally, as percussion mallets.

“And so there’s this beautiful choreography that goes on when they perform one of these pieces, because its entirely memorized,” Kennedy says. “The music is composed by the pioneer of the genre, Stephen A. Scott, and he leads the ensemble. The sound of a bowed piano is very ethereal and beautiful, and Scott’s compositions are not unlike those of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, so it’s got this nice rhythmic regularity to it, often with experimental but conventional tonalities. It’s a great experience.”

The second of the five programs features accordionist and composer Guy Klucevsec, whose solo program The Well Tempered Accordion is a lighthearted riff a play on J.S. Bach’s timeless Well Tempered Clavier.

“Guy is here to play accordion in our production of Mahagonny,” Kennedy observes. “He’s one of the great accordion players in the world, and has composed for the instrument for many years. He’s a virtuoso. He can really play. His own solo compositions are really fantastic, and he has a great sense of humor about it.

“Ensemble Sirius,” he continues, “is in many way a polar opposite to that program.”

The artists in the third program will perform music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a 20th-century German composer who’s known for writing complex and intellectualized post-serialist music. The first piece, entitled “Heaven’s Door,” is the American premiere of a new work that’s performed entirely on a giant wooden — you guessed it — door, which the artists had constructed specifically for this purpose.

“This piece has a tremendous theatrical element to it,” Kennedy says. “A lot has gone into the construction and tuning of the door. It’s somewhat of a music theatre piece.”

Also on the program, he notes, is one of Stockhausen’s most important works, called “Kontakte”: “It’s a mid 20th-century work for electronics, piano, and percussion. All lovers of 20th-century work would put up there as one of the really important works.”

Program four draws heavily on two of the Big Festival’s centerpiece events, the operas The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with music by composer Kurt Weill, and composer Pascal Dusapin’s Faustus, The Last Night, which Kennedy is conducting at the Sottile Theatre.

The first part of the concert features three chamber works by Dusapin with names that mirror those of characters in Faustus: Attaca, Sly, and To God. The second half invokes Mahagonny‘s cabaret sensibilities.

Mahagonny is done in sort of a cabaret style. So there’s a couple of pieces presented in homage to that style. One is a piece by Tony Bereze, who’s here this year as an assistant conductor on the production of Lile de Merlin. He’s also a fantastic composer, and we’re doing a piece of his called Apostolic Rag, which is sort of for a cabaret ensemble.”

Classic rocks fans will also recognize a tune from Mahagonny: “Alabama Song,” which Jim Morrison and The Doors famously covered in 1967, 40 years after the opera’s premiere. Kennedy says it was recently discovered that legendary American composer Morton Feldman also penned a personalized take on the song, “so we’ll do the American premiere of that arrangement, too.”

For the final program, Kennedy offers up 15 short, innovative violin solos commissioned by violinist and composer Piotr Szewczyk for a project called Violin Futura.

“In the past year Piotr’s commissioned these works from composers all over the world, many of the leading generation types in their 20s, including myself,” Kennedy smiles, “though I’m a little older than most of the others. It’s an absolutely spectacular collection of pieces that Piotr has put together in a very theatrical program.”

He’s also chosen three of his players for solo string works for viola, cello, and bass, one each by members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra who specialize in contemporary music.

In addition to programming the Music in Time series — and, this year, running herd on the pit orchestra for Faustus — Kennedy acts as chief wrangler for the Spoleto Festival Orchestra each year, auditioning hundreds of talented young hopefuls from around the globe for the 110 or so coveted positions in the seasonal symphony. Each year Kennedy taps a handful of those artists (all of them among the most gifted up-and-coming players in the world) as the performers for his series, except in the cases where outside groups like the Bowed Piano Ensemble are brought in.

“I can only physically hear about 600 auditions for the orchestra,” Kennedy says, “but we screen many more than that just to determine who’s going to get an audition. The competition these days to get orchestral jobs is as tough as its ever been. Music conservatories are just putting out so many incredibly talented kids. We really have an embarrassment of riches to choose from.” — Patrick Sharbaugh

Music in Time • Spoleto Festival USA • $20 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 26, June 1, 2, 5, 7 at 5 p.m. • Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • 579-3100

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