Conlon Nancarrow with Player Piano.

Contemporary Music Old and New: Out-takes from the Festival of Contemporary Music, 2018

The time-frame of “contemporary music” keeps expanding.  “Modern music” was a term (and the name of an American music magazine) current from the 20’s through ‘40’s, but is still used to refer to music from the 1890’s on.  After the war, we have the beginnings of “contemporary music” with Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen, the Darmstadt composers and the Cage followers who were busy decrying “modern music” as passé.  Since the late sixties when twelve-tone music was periodically declared a dead-end in the pages of the Sunday New York Times and elsewhere, we have had “post-modern” music, which includes “new romanticism.”  Tanglewood has had a “Contemporary Music” festival since 1961, so we can safely say that the “contemporary” era is at least 57 years old.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the TMC Orchestra. Photo Hilary Scott.

Brahms’ and Blomstedt’s Uncompromising Vision at Tanglewood

Brahms’ Fourth must stand with a very small handful of other works at the apex of symphonic composition. It represents the essence of “symphonism,” that is, the use of the fully developed romantic orchestra as a unified, full-throated body expressing a completely coherent and integrated musical discourse, in serious purpose comparable to great works of philosophical thought. It is difficult not to think in philosophical terms when encountering this work, especially as performed by the TMC Orchestra under the hands of nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt, whose control over the flow of such expansive structures is notable among today’s conductors. Words like “austere,” “severe,” “dark,” and “stern” appear regularly in the literature[1] to warn listeners that they are in for a challenging experience with this symphony. One could add “sustained,” “coherent,” “integrated,” “interconnected,” “deeply moving” and, finally, “tragic.” There are few other symphonies that insist on the minor modality to the bitter end: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 (“La Passione”), Mahler’s Sixth (“Tragic”), and Vaughan-Williams’ Fourth and Sixth may be the best-known examples, and only Haydn displays the same structural necessity and lack of ambivalence about such a conclusion as Brahms. 

Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellow Adriana Velinova, TMC instrumentalists and composer-conductor John Harbison in Cantatas by J. S. Bach

Bach’s Hidden Treasure Partially Revealed: the Cantata Project at Tanglewood

We listen to all kinds of music in concert halls. They seem to provide a neutral setting within which all different genres can make their own statements. In Ozawa Hall I have heard Japanese Gagaku music, Sephardic music from the Middle Ages, opera from Handel to Bizet and Beeson, violin solos, extra-large orchestra pieces (e.g. Mahler’s Third), electro-acoustic music, string quartets, etc. Although this list does not include jazz and rock, there is no reason why this space would not suit them equally well.

Vinay Parameswaran leads Festival of Contemporary Music cocurator Jacob Greenberg and Tanglewood Music Center Fellows in Nathan Davis’s “The Sand Reckoner”. Photo Hilary Scott.

Festival of Contemporary Music, August 10-14, 2017

Curated programs were a new and determining feature of Tanglewood’s 2017 Festival of Contemporary Music. In three of the five concerts, repertory and performers were chosen by a performer-curator who selected works by composers with whom they had worked extensively.  Each of the curators, pianist Jacob Greenberg, cellist Kathryn Bates, and violist Nadia Sirota had been at Tanglewood (as part of the New Fromm players) and had developed a significant career in playing and promoting new compositions. The result was a concentration of works by composers of varied backgrounds who are living and working in the United States, and of an age that can be described as “mid-career.” Each curator got to choose one work to be included on the final TMC Orchestra concert.

Garrick Ohlsson’s Two Hands: Where the Poles of Romanticism Meet…Schubert and Scriabin at Tanglewood

Schubert is considered an early romantic composer, but that does justice neither to his personal voice nor to the amazingly compressed stylistic development that took place right up to his death at the age of 31. Compared to his older contemporaries John Field and Carl Maria von Weber, Schubert the instrumental composer was a classicist, striving to emulate Beethoven in his increasingly masterful command of large forms; but in all of his music, he was also a fully developed romantic composer, squeezing feeling out of every note, often with the most original conceptions of sound and expressiveness.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs at Pleasant Valley as part of BSO collaboration with Mass Audubon Society. Photo Hilary Scott.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard Programs Birds, Ideas, and Modernist Brilliance

As Pierre Boulez’s “house pianist” at Ensemble Intercontemporain for many years, Pierre-Laurent Aimard could have been expected to be very brainy, in command of the most complex and challenging modern scores, with an artistic temperament on the cool side, eschewing virtuosic display and temperament. His deep insight into contemporary music has been amply demonstrated in his many past Tanglewood appearances, but may give the impression that he is a specialist in this area. This would be mistaken. As demonstrated in recordings and in these concerts, his virtues as a musician benefit a wide-ranging repertory, including (in his solo recital) the baroque Louis-Claude Daquin, the romantic Robert Schumann, and the earlier 20th century Maurice Ravel.

Thomas Ades leads the TMC Orchestra. Photo Hilary Scott.

Sounding the Mysteries: Nature, Music, and the Human Soul

TMC orchestra performances tend to be somewhat haphazard assortments of repertory, mostly of high quality, but diverse rather than coherent as programs. Monday night’s concert was different: there were resonances among the works that indicated a triangle of influences and artistic interests with the apex being in the music of British composer Thomas Adès, who conducted half of the program.

Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, oil on canvas, 1872, Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Youthful Mozart, (Over-)Ripe Mahler from Andris Nelsons and the BSO, Daniel Lozakovich, Violin

here seem to be two kinds of Mahler conductors: those who scrupulously adhere to the composer’s very detailed performing instructions, letting the score speak for itself, and those who add interpretive value to those instructions, prolonging ritards into moments of stasis, dwelling lovingly on details, pulling apart the inner workings of Mahler’s original harmonic language, and ecstatically prolonging climactic moments. To put the matter up front, I am a strong partisan of the first approach, and usually have a negative response to the second.

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