This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.
The French philosophe Fontanelle famously asked “Sonate, que veux-tu?” in response to the new popularity of a purely instrumental form that asked that the audience do nothing more than sit and listen: “Sonata, what do you want from me?” Hearing Mahler’s extraordinary, gargantuan Third Symphony, one is tempted to repeat the question. What indeed is demanded from the listener by this veritable barrage, this unprecedented outpouring of the full spectra of sounds and noises, human emotional conditions, evocations of life forms from flowers to angels, plumbed philosophical depths, musical allusions encompassing inchoate mutterings, crude military assaults, the most naïve and artless melodies, state-of-the-art sophisticated harmonies, an off-stage post horn, a marriage of a poem by Nietzsche and German folk lyrics, a chorus of boys and women that sings for less than four out of the ninety minutes of the work, pre-echoes of Sousa marches and pop tunes (Sammy Fein’s “I’ll be seeing you…”; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; the Beatles “Yesterday”), deliberate references to Beethoven, Wagner, and for all I know, even Brahms? Judging from the enthusiasm of its response last Saturday night, whatever it was that the audience was actually imagining or experiencing provided it with a full measure of gratification. But the question remains, what was the composer after: “Mahler, que veux-tu?”
For many reasons, Mozart is one of the most difficult composers for today’s performers to encounter. Historically, he occupies an intermediate zone between Early Music and mainstream performance practices, and today’s musicians have a wide range of performing styles from which to choose, from those passed on by traditional conservatory teachers and established mainstream performers, to the spectrum of historically informed practices exemplified by Dutch, German, English, and even American ‘schools,’ and extending to hybrids of the two. This counts enormously in Mozart, whose sensitive, vocal-based melodies and elegantly complex textures reveal every strength and weakness of a chosen performing style with spectacular clarity. This is not to say that anyone can claim a ‘correct’ choice; writers have long ago established that the notion of ‘authenticity’ is a chimera. The real issue is how effectively and convincingly a performing style can convey the heart and soul of the music to a modern audience.
The life and career of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the colossal figure who dominates the history of English music, occurred at the chronological mid-point of the Baroque, a period whose leading and most distinguishing genre is opera. And yet, opera never took root as a native product in English cultural soil. For that it had to wait until Purcell’s distant successor, Benjamin Britten, appeared on the scene two hundred and fifty years later. Twenty years after Purcell’s death, Handel arrived with his succession of exotic opera singers: Italian divas and castrati who swooped in like birds of paradise warbling their outlandish roulades and then vanished. The taste for such entertainment lasted at the most 25 years. Meanwhile, Purcell wrote only one true opera, a tiny gem that was held to be the only crown jewel for centuries, the miniature Dido and Aeneas of 1689. (John Blow’s fine companion piece, Venus and Adonis of 1701, still has not established itself in the canon.) And it was written for a girls’ school run by a dancing master, or at least its first documented performance occurred in this context.
The pianist-composer performs a program of works for solo piano, including the early work “Dreams” (1961) and a selection from his recent and on-going series of short works “Nanosonatas.”
Holland is known as an incubator of the movement to restore the use of historically authentic instruments in the performance of early music, particularly in its most recent phase of the past half-century. While this owes much to the personalities and examples of such notable figures as Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, and the (Belgian) Kuijken brothers, there are two other compelling factors: a knowledgeable and receptive public, and the presence of a treasured collection of historically important baroque-period organs housed in magnificent acoustical settings.
A beautiful, warm, late-autumn Sunday afternoon in the peaceful village of Bedford, New York was disrupted by some cracklingly energetic performances of Hispanic vocal and instrumental music performed on period instruments by Ensemble Rebel and guests. The title of the program was misleading; there was nothing that referred to the political powers that shaped the cultures from which this music came. This raises the question: how should such a program be billed? As “Spanish and Latin-American Music from the Baroque Era” or “Baroque Music from Spain and the New World?” The difference has to do with the way you like to categorize such unruly experiences.
The superb pianist Simone Dinnerstein offered her highly personal view of Bach in a comprehensive manner on Saturday night at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in a program sponsored by the Berkshire Bach Society. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member of the board of the society.) Playing a modern Hamburg Steinway concert grand, Ms Dinnerstein displayed complete and consistent command over all aspects of piano performance, making liberal use of the coloristic possibilities of touch and pedals, and employing a dramatically wide dynamic range. The presentation included regular displays of keyboard virtuosity that clearly took the collective breath away from the adoring audience. The evening was an overt triumph for all concerned, and the Bach Society demonstrated Bach’s adaptability to modern instruments and contemporary musical circumstances.