There are times when a concert program – or a concert review, for that matter – might do well to bear the hacky warning “Spoiler Alert.” There are other situations when program notes should announce themselves as prerequisite reading. And then there are occasions that beg for a solution, some means of pairing the intellectual experience with the emotional response. (Perhaps Tom Johnson got it right with his 1971 An Hour for Piano, which calls for the composer's notes to be read through the duration of the performance). Some such option might have served to explain the final piece on the closing night of the Earle Brown Music Foundation's 2019 Time Spans festival, held 10-21 August at the Dimenna Center in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.

The Earle Brown Music Foundation's annual festival of new music has grown considerably in its 19 years, and in fact doubled its number of concerts this year. The final night presented works by composers from Canada from the last four decades, culminating with the Moscow-born Nikolaj Korndorf, who lived the last decade of his life in Vancouver. The score for Korndorf's 1997 Music for Owen Underhill and his Magnificent Eight calls for the conductor to play a variety of instruments while leading the ensemble. The notes also make clear that the title shouldn't be taken as a reference to the John Sturges movie and that it is “a serious work, not entertainment.”

Talea Ensemble's performance of the piece started in an eruption of drums and lighting, fast piano, clarinet, oboe, piccolo and violin lines, nearly cataclysmic and certainly relentless in several minutes of variegated fury. There was little distinguishing it from the most explosive of free jazz improvisations other than the amorphous sense of shared purpose suggested by the musicians' eyes fixed on their music stands, but the rhythm persisted, insisting that there was direction within the mayhem. Eventually it reduced to pounding piano and whispering drums as we entered the eye of the storm, a calm occupied by low winds – bass flute, bass clarinet and chimes like a distant bell buoy. Then, utterly gracefully, a gorgeously melancholic cello melody arose, played with great warmth by Chris Gross. We made our way out into the windstorm again, leading to another onslaught brought to a head by the promised siren, and then again the calm and a single crack of the snare to signal an end. Even being in the audience was exhausting.

But being in the audience was also confusing. The program notes had enticingly promised that “the conductor performs on instruments as well as leading the ensemble”. A subsequent investigation of the score confirmed that the conductor is called upon to play church bells, recorder, Japanese Temple Cup Bell and siren. Yet Lorraine Vaillancourt did none of those. The decision to add a second percussionist to the “magnificent eight” of the title was made (I later learned) after the program had been sent to the printer. So while not the composers intention, the piece served as a wonderful prank, adding a tension of unrealized expectation to the performance.

The evening opened with the piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire and added percussionist Bill Solomon playing Claude Vivier's 1977 Pulau Dewata. As with much of Vivier's later music, Pulau Dewata was based on Balinese music, teasing unison lines, the piano slipping in and out of formation, running counter to it, then dropping out as soon as the vibes caught up. To witness the players matching the shifting tempos was predictably impressive, but to hear them matching the shifting moods and dynamics was wonderful to behold. Their take on the German-born, Quebec-based Michael Oesterie 2013 Carrousel was fascinating in its juxtaposing of complexity and gentle serenity: cerebrally invigorating at times, painfully beautiful at others.

The rest of the evening (and the better part of the stage) were given over to Talea. Michael Oesterle's 2013 Carrousel played within dissonances, traipsing into remarkably rhythmic terrains panning across the orchestra, then developing heavy repeated theme worthy of Mussorgsky. Dark and animated, it would have made a nice score for Banksy's Dismalland, with cymbals and timpani as the voice of doom.

A sextet of Talea members played Knotted Silk – composed in 1999 by Linda Catlin Smith (born in New York City and based in Toronto) – with piano and percussion insinuating staggered counts into sustained notes from the clarinet, piano, violin and contrabass. At times they combined forces in chordal structures (the “knots” of the title). It was brief and lovely, passing by almost unnoticed in an evening that wasn't to be missed.