August 20, 2010
LENOX, Mass. -- Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music draws composers, students, donors, Berkshires residents with grounds passes and, musically, the new, newer and newest. This year Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's teaching arm, celebrated its 70th anniversary by dropping the festival’s wet-ink category. The five-day event addressed instead the music of former fellows or faculty members – much like Juilliard's winter “Focus!” festival, "Music at the Center: Composing an American Mainstream."
The six morning, afternoon and evening concerts, running Aug. 12-16, were curated by Oliver Knussen, John Harbison and Gunther Schuller; composers were present in body (including Elliott Carter, age 101) or in spirit (Schuller, otherwise committed; Milton Babbitt, 94).
Traditionally, everyone mills around outside Seiji Ozawa Hall during intermissions, so that listeners, conductors, composers and performers just off the stage can chat. Harbison heard about someone struggling with a piece that seemed stubbornly repellent, and said, as calmly as he always says things, "Forget about it. It's not your problem." It's not? How freeing.
George Perle can be counted on to say concisely and with clear intelligence just what he means in his music. The piano part of "Concertino for Piano, Woodwinds and Timpani" goes easily into the fingers, and the instruments' transparent dialogue looks inviting on the page.
But Schuller's 1972 “Tre Inventioni,” for five quintets with no strings, is a catalogue of what listeners shy away from in contemporary music. Any time a thought gets started, some instrument comes barging in with its two cents’ worth. At one point the screaming, whistling instrumental ensemble evokes a low, writhing reptile. Perhaps there is an audience for this somewhere; more likely its time has passed.
Schuller's early "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee," courageously performed by the Boston Symphony on a Koussevitzky Music Shed program, suggested the artist's subjects but missed his essential whimsy. (Well, the title does say "Themes," not "Style.")
The most appealing program began with Five Pieces for Piano  by the formidable Roger Sessions. A couple were frankly beautiful. The Lento in memory of Luigi Dallapiccola is like the dreamy first and sections of an Ives piece, but without "My Grandfather's Clock" or whatever recollection Ives would plant in the middle. Alexander Bernstein had the piece memorized. Play it again, Alex!
The strong 12-tone lines of Irving Fine's 1959 Fantasia for String Trio received a solid, fiery reading from the New Fromm Players. Today, 50 years later, we're ready to like this. The honest writing of "Gaggle and Flock," Steven Mackey's double quartet, moved along with no cute agenda or added effects.
Babbitt's love song mini-cycle, "Du," was the oldie on the program; imagine how it sounded at its premiere, in 1951! Extended high notes didn't give Deanna Breiwick's gentle soprano much chance, but Brett Hodgdon, a Babbitt convert, was a supportive pianist.
Bright Sheng has apparently stopped lecturing people in his music, and has composed three enticingly simple, quietly Chinese “Fantasies” for Violin and Piano. It sounds as if he's found his center after years of writing music about anger and war atrocities.
Some pieces on these programs, like Sheng's, succeeded because the composer has found himself, others because listeners’ contexts have evolved to where they can enjoy them.
The operas, for example. Sunday night's (Aug. 15) Fromm concert was unstaged versions -- with a gesture toward costuming -- of one-act operas from the 70s: Harbison's "Full Moon in March" and Knussen's "Where the Wild Things Are." Neither had seemed attractive on initial hearing, but now they are luscious and intriguing.
Singers were superbly prepared: Baritone Shea Owens, the passionate, doomed swineherd (whose song wins the queen's love and gets him beheaded) in “Full Moon,” and soprano Danya Katok, bad boy Max in "Wild Things," should run immediately to the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Program. James Levine, who withdrew from the season to recover from back surgery, must know some of these emerging artists, who not only show what the Tanglewood vocal department is now, but point toward its future.
Stefan Asbury was a fine conductor of the instrumentalists whom the intense summer program forged into an orchestra. Harbison used a restrained chamber group, while Knussen's orchestration was typically over-the-top, with monster-like percussion and low brass.
Judging from the pugnacious four-movement "Echoi" (Echoes) for four players, by the late Lukas Foss, 1963 was a tough year. (The piece brought to mind a Lincoln Center performance from that era of his "Fragments of Archilochos," where every member of the Collegiate Chorale was supplied with a pitch pipe.) By the last movement's assaultive start, the ear had figuratively closed, so who cared if the percussionist ran around the stage thwacking surfaces, musical and not, as the composer reveled in rebelliousness. The audience for "Echoi" can only be a rarefied one.
A listener’s pleasure is all a matter of where a listener is on the journey to acceptance. Berio's "Circles" for female voice, harp and two percussion players, from the same period as "Echoi," is a formidably difficult ee cummings set, made harder by the crucial absence of promised word sheets. Poor Laura Mercado-Wright had to whisper, shout, clap, bark, and walk around disciplining unruly percussionists. It was also long, which Cummings’ poetry is not. (This was the occasion when Harbison, informally approached at intermission, calmly encouraged moving on.)
In contrast, Messiaen's Piano Quintet, an almost-last work with his signature harmonies, was unexpectedly brief. Live and learn.
The final orchestra concert of the contemporary festival and Music Center season began with "Aureole," Jacob Druckman's 1979 showpiece. It is a world of sonority-- forget structure, absorb glitter. Carter, who has lost none of his energetic intellect, attended this American premiere of his "What are years," a setting of five poems of Marianne Moore. Some of Sarah Joanne Davis' vocal line was in the mumble-mumble-shriek genre, but in exposed moments one could hear what a sweet voice she has.
Robert Spano, steeped in Tanglewood and Americana, was the right choice for Copland's Symphony No. 3, as he had been for "American in Paris" in the Shed program with the Schuller piece. Copland, who composed part of the work here, was a faculty member from the outset. The symphony is at the nexus of his Americana greats and his future forays into serialism. Also, it expounds on the majestic, timeless "Fanfare for the Common Man."
The ovation for the symphony concluded the Festival in a spirit of homecoming.