Classical Notes

Time binds the music and MIT

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2010

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January, you might say, is a time for time. The new year is still new, and there’s space in which to reckon the days just gone and those to come. Time’s limits, and its limitless possibilities, are both in our minds, each vying for primacy.

With its first Winter Festival, the Boston Chamber Music Society is providing a soundtrack for this reflective period. Beginning tomorrow and continuing through the next two Saturdays, the festival has as its theme time and its relation to music, with each concert preceded by a forum exploring one aspect of this giant, multifaceted issue. Unusually for BCMS, the concerts will be heavy on modern music; the conferences will be interdisciplinary, with contributions also from science, poetry, and design.

The gathering is the brainchild of Marcus Thompson, who is in his first year as artistic director of the society and his 36th on the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the concerts and conferences are taking place. He says the idea arose from a desire on the part of both institutions to open themselves to new audiences.

“It just seemed to me that I was hearing the same thing from two different sides of the world that I occupy,’’ says Thompson by phone. “The need to do something different, something that would appeal to a new, younger audience. And also, the need to do something that gave a clear explanation of what we were doing and why we were doing it.’’

The festival is being funded partially by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts specifically to support the performance of American music; Libby Larsen, George Crumb, William Grant Still, and Peter Child are among the composers represented - with Mozart, Beethoven, and Dvorak. “In structuring the program, I have to remember that we are the Boston Chamber Music Society,’’ Thompson says candidly, alluding to the ensemble’s penchant for rather conservative programming. “We can’t suddenly disavow who we are; we have to play the things that we play well.’’

Because of the volume of unfamiliar repertoire, he thought that a unifying idea would be helpful. “When people are faced with a tremendous amount of anything new, sometimes it’s best to just focus on one thing that helps you to get in: one metric, one avenue that allows you to make connections.’’ More broadly, the festival represents a sort of collective effort to think through music’s unique means of marking out, organizing, and manipulating time, its horizons of memory and anticipation.

Or, as Thompson puts it, “Music is really audible time. It can’t be experienced in an instant; it has to be unfolded in time.’’

The specific themes were suggested by ideas germane to MIT, as well as by the colleagues whom Thompson could tap as panelists. So tomorrow’s forum, for example, explores “Time as Shape’’ and features contributions from Larsen and, from MIT, music historian Michael Cuthbert, theater designer Sara Brown, and physicist Robert Jaffe. Larsen’s “Black Birds, Red Hills’’ for clarinet, viola and piano (on tomorrow’s concert) was inspired by painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Thompson says the piece evokes “how paintings show shapes and encode certain things that have to do with the passage of time.’’ Also on the program is Crumb’s “Eleven Echoes of Autumn,’’ an arch-shaped piece whose text (from Lorca) refers to “the broken arches where time suffers.’’

Perhaps the most intriguing entry, “Time as Subject and Substance,’’ delves into musical responses to texts and sculpture. The panel includes poet Stephen Tapscott and artist Paul Matisse.

That evening’s concert concludes with Lukas Foss’s “Time Cycle,’’ a setting of texts by Auden, Housman, Kafka, and Nietzsche that each deal with the mysteries of time. Indeed, an excerpt from Auden’s “We’re Late’’ could serve as an aphorism for the entire festival:

Clocks cannot tell our time of day

For what event to pray

Because we have no time, because

We have no time until

We know what time we fill,

Why time is other than time was.

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