What does “classical music” mean? Five oboists might give you five different answers, but to the average listener it probably means old. Or dead. Or both.
While encouraging trends toward livelier programming pop up, sustained efforts to show that “new music” and “classical music” are not mutually exclusive seem to come and go.
But with this season’s string of concerts, the 20th Century Consort proves an exception to the rule. Now in its 22nd year, the group continues, under the baton of artistic director Christopher Kendall, to present what Kendall calls “music of our time” to an appreciableand appreciativeaudience.
“There are people who are really attracted to our programs who wouldn’t normally be interested in classical music,” Kendall explains from his office at the University of Maryland, where he now heads the school of music. “New music can be a point of entrance to people who haven’t been interested before.”
This Saturday’s performance is a good example. Titled “Water Ways,” its four pieces, connected by the theme of water, are also part of a series addressing Eastern art and thought: Rain Tree, for three percussion players, is by the eminent Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who lectured with John Cage in 1964 and died just last year; The Stream Flows, by Shanghai-born composer Bright Sheng, is written for Western instruments but incorporates Chinese folk melody.
The living composer is important to the Consort’s vitality. In its attempt to balance “classics of the 20th century” (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mahler, etc.) with works where “the ink is still wet” (although these days, Kendall concedes, laser-printer toner is more like it), the Consort’s performances feature composers who are “contemporary” in every sense. “Some composers are notorious for not completing their piece until the 11th hourand 59th minute,” Kendall says, laughing. “That can drive performers bananas.”
The 20th Century Consort will present “Water Ways” at 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 8 at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium. Preconcert discussion at 4 p.m. For tickets, call Smithsonian Associates at