To really enjoy new music, you have to have open ears. It’s a quality marked by curiosity, wonder, humor. It’s what conductor John Kennedy’s long-time friend Edwin Gardner had in abundance. The late Gardner, who was killed in a bicycle accident last summer, was a regular attendee of Kennedy’s Music in Time (MIT) series, usually sitting in the front row, mesmerized and delighted by whatever new piece of music Kennedy decided to present. Indeed, Kennedy might even describe Gardner as the ultimate MIT audience member.

“He was one of the free spirits of the world and perhaps the most wonderfully curious person I ever knew,” says Kennedy, who will pay a quiet tribute to that free-spiritedness with his first Music in Time program, which is entitled Endangered Natures. “Aside from missing him as a friend, it’s an homage to his spirit and enthusiasm for new things and hearing music as something that has the power to change.”

Gardner’s widow, Whitney Powers, recalls the first program they attended together. It was one of their very first dates back in the early ’90s. “I can’t remember the name of the piece to save my life, but the music was to be performed by non-musicians with John conducting. I remember Edwin trying to blow across a wine bottle. He almost passed out, so John handed him a slide whistle and said ‘Maybe you should try this.’ He was hooked from that moment on.”

The pieces Kennedy chose to honor his friend evoke remembrance and generosity of spirit while being reflective in a simple way. The theme in the first program, says Kennedy, “is music as a form of environmental consciousness.”

Naturali Periclitati (the “endangered nature” of the program’s title) is one of his own compositions. “It’s a piano work that attempts to express all sorts of things that are endangered in our day and age: the environment, animal species, traditional societal relationships, ways of interacting, and the fading memories of our connections to history.” Lydia Brown will be at the piano for that one.

He’ll also present a short second piece “Garden Winds,” a subtle dedication to Gardner that was still a work-in-progress when Kennedy arrived in Charleston at the beginning of May to prepare for the festival, a bit of news that Powers found to be apropos. “I told him an unfinished piece would be very fitting,” she says, referring to the life Gardner didn’t quite get a chance to complete.

Powers says her husband had a distinct enthusiasm for the series, particularly the percussive programs. “He liked it in the same way that he liked Brahms,” she says. “He liked that it was rich and deliberate.”

Rounding out the first program will be ZZ’s Dream by composer Osvaldo Golijov (composer-in-residence for this year’s Chamber series) and Ingram Marshall’s A Peaceable Kingdom.

The other three MIT performances are equally evocative and promise to richly reward those who arrive with open ears. Sarah Cahill will perform A Sweeter Music, a collection of works inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. The pianist commissioned the pieces from leading composers like Paul Drescher, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, and others.

The third program, entitled The Time Gallery, belongs entirely to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec. The piece is for a chamber sextet and explores various concepts of time in the course of its four movements. The music evokes primitive timekeeping (like the use of bells), mechanical methods (like clocks), the pulse of the human heart, and the often surreal and elastic nature of time as part of human memory.

Music in Time IV will be devoted to six chamber works by Kaija Saariaho, the contemporary female composer who’s in town for the American premiere of her opera Émilie, which Kennedy is also conducting.

While Kennedy will no doubt miss the front-row presence of his friend, Powers promises, “Edwin will be there in spirit” open ears and all.

Lindsay Koob contributed to this piece.