Contemporary Music Review
By Leslie Kandell
LENOX - "Did anyone tell you that in each subway train there is one special seat with a tank of piranha fish?" That text, from "On the Underground, Set No. 2 (The Strange and The Exotic)" by the Scottish composer Thea Musgrave, entertained the Tanglewood audience at Saturday afternoon's Ozawa Hall concert, but the Glasgow transit department, which commissioned it, was not amused, and refused to have it performed. Festival of Contemporary Music director Robert Spano, known for his thematic weekends with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony, has subtitled this year's festival "The Sacred and the Profane," and in its four weekend concerts, both were in high definition. Saturday's chamber chorus works, with the New York Virtuoso Singers doing half the afternoon program plus a Prelude concert, were surely more difficult to learn than they were to follow and enjoy. The image of commuters sitting on piranha fish took care of the profane, and liturgical settings by Charles Wuorinen and Gyorgy Ligeti (the Hungarian composer being honored here on his 80th birthday) depicted the sacred. Some works mixed both elements - one such being Sean H. Carson's reflection on the violent aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, "Kyrie, L.A. Is on Fire," whose title puns on the prayer, "Kyrie Eleison." While the Boston Symphony's Friday concert turned up early works by Stravinsky and by Spano's FCM predecessor George Benjamin - a laudable gesture which took its toll on attendance - the Tanglewood Music Center's Saturday program presented works by composers over 50, no excuses for immaturity. The thorniest, Britten's late, eponymous "Sacred and Profane, Eight Medieval Lyrics" is in the spirit and Middle English of "A Ceremony of Carols," but far denser and more complex, to the point where it is seldom performed. The carol lyrics span love, death and Christianity, and are held together less by subject than by music. Under its director Harold Rosenbaum, the unaccompanied Virtuoso voices had small tone, focused but confidently unforced. The Britten carols, along with Musgrave's "Underground" and Jonathan Harvey's ee cummings set, "Forms of Emptiness," all built sustained chords with notes poking out. Instead of counterpoint, there were gentle tone-clusters, making watercolor washes in sound. Not that these pieces are alike - except in contrast to excerpts from Ligeti's only opera, "Le Grand Macabre," the 1978 rarity which followed. The scenes, with Tanglewood vocal fellows done up as the Grim Reaper, the wise town drunk, an ingenue, and her lover (a woman in a pants role), encompass large ranges and a number of styles including loud, non-tonal and in-your-face. This boiling pot, which also had a well-prepared young chorus from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, even threw off a riff on a bass fiddle theme from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Assistant conductor James Gaffigan observed, "If you treat it like chaos, it's chaos. It needs to be pristine, like Mozart." And Stefan Asbury, conductor of the endlessly remarkable Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, worked like a Trojan and gave it shape. This year's Paul Jacobs commission, Sunday morning's premiere following two Peter Lieberson works, was "Eclipse," by the German-born recent Tanglewood composing fellow Florian Maier. Colorfully scored for small orchestra and ably led by Gaffigan, it conjures the effect of a solar eclipse on animals and the environment. From this clever premise, four sections evoked the eerie calm before the noontime night, and confused distress of woodwindy birds and brass-rendered cows in premature dusk. In the funny but political finale, peace returns, disturbed only by a radio, its static and changing stations portrayed by odd use of string instrument bows. (Jacobs, once the Fromm pianist, might have thought it too cute, but would have admired its originality.) The Fromm Foundation concert Sunday night was piano power rampant. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist for Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, played substantial Ligeti Etudes (some dedicated to him) with such an exalted sense of their music that Tanglewood, showcase of the greats, can add him to the top of its roster. Aimard, whose riveting Teldec CD alternates them with African Pygmy music, is masterful at phrasing, speed, and meters, as well as the challenging but modestly-displayed scale patterns and suspenseful pedalling, and he made them beautiful. The audience cheered and cheered. Before the showstopper etudes, Aimard introduced Benjamin's "Shadowlines," six episodes in canon, layered from similar lines entering at different times - thus the title. Highly chromatic, they made full use of the keyboard in range and mood, with large leaps and baby steps, and a flowing impressionist end. There was also a brief homage by Peter Eotvos - chords and sustained low notes - to Luciano Berio, the renowned composer who died in May. The concert concluded with Messiaen's two-piano "Visions de l'Amen," a majestically spiritual rarity performed by TMC piano coordinator Ursula Oppens and Spano. (Note that in one long weekend, the talented Spano also conducted the Boston Symphony and Music Center orchestras, directed the contemporary festival, and Sunday morning, and delivered Cage's rarely-heard 45-minute para-sermon monologue, "Lecture on Nothing.") "Visions," from 1943, is vintage Messiaen - seven sections of massive sonorities, as well as repeated figures up in the bird stratosphere, and signal harmonies that refer not only to his "Quartet for the End of Time," but to deeply-sunken French cathedrals and passionate thankfulness. (Mark Morris was in the audience, probably wondering if this vast music could be danced to.) Aimard was a tough act to follow, but because of the sheer scale of "Visions" and the brilliant performers' strength and skill, it made an awesome finale.