Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music: Old Copland, New Carter, and Others

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Aaron CoplandTanglewood Music Center Orchestra

Monday August 16, 2010 at Ozawa Hall
“Aureoles” (1979) by Jacob Druckman
Conductor – Keitaro Harada
“Turning Point” (2006, American premiere) by Colin Matthews
Conductor – Cristian Macelaru
“What Are Years” by Elliott Carter (2010, American premiere)
Songs for soprano and chamber orchestra on poems of Marianne Moore
Soprano – Sarah Joanne Davis
Conductor – Oliver Knussen
“Third Symphony” (1946) by Aaron Copland
Conductor – Robert Spano

Varieties of modern orchestral experience, British and American, were on display at the concluding event of this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, with three out of four offerings featuring the full (or over-full) resources of large ensembles. The Carter song-cycle used the pared-down configuration of a good-sized chamber-orchestra to support the solo soprano. Each work inhabited a distinctive sound-world and had its own conductor; it was almost as if we were hearing four different orchestras. It would be neat if I could diagram the four pieces as the points on a musical compass, but the chronological distance between the Copland (1946) and the rest (1982-2010) was such that the picture would look more like a buried root system connected to the leafy ends of three branches, and not all even belonging to the same tree. (Freud said that you are bound to run into problems if you try to construct a physical model of the mind; I’m having the same problem with this set of pieces.) But one implicit subtext may have inadvertently bound three of the four works together, that of war and peace.

The earliest work is Copland’s grand encomium to an America composed of common men (and women) circa World War II. It is a tricky beast to lead into the contemporary world; it is a powerful, moving, corny sound-track to a movie about the greatest generation composed with consummate mastery and a bit of questionable taste at the celebratory conclusion: Bernstein wrote to Copland: “sweetie, the ending is a sin” and convinced the reluctant composer to cut ten bars from the over-the-top conclusion. Copland restored the cut in his later performances, and they should be there in order for us to hear what he was hearing. I heard the TMC Orchestra play the symphony in a concert in August 1990 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. It was to be his second-to-last concert, and its inclusion demonstrated Bernstein’s belief in it as canonical American repertory. Both that performance and this one suffered from the same unrestrained brass playing (i.e. blasting) at the end, although Bernstein managed to tame the beast a bit more successfully than Spano. While Bernstein, even in his ailing state, was able to impart a subtle feeling of “swing” to the jazzy, exultant rhythms of the last movement, Spano went for giddy, almost out-of-control dash. Spano clearly loved working with the youthful energy of his players and let them take the lead or pushed them to their limit in order to exploit and enjoy their virtuosity. Their response to the challenge was exhilarating but there were too many peaks, not enough valleys and slow ascents. The two opposing faces of this not-yet-fully-accepted repertory item are its glitzy, glamorous, crowd-pleasing one, and its sober, carefully constructed dramatic narrative which balances heart-on-the-sleeve display with thoughtful introspection. When that balance is achieved, this can indeed seem like the great American symphony it so clearly aspires to be.

Jacob Druckman

Jacob Druckman is known for curating “new Romanticism” at the New York Philharmonic during the 1980s. Ironically, his own music only occasionally fits that rubric, and not in the case of this 1982 work, which beautifully exemplifies Druckman’s own roots in ’60s and ’70s atonal maximalism (although not in serialism). It is clear at this point in time that all these ‘isms’ and ‘schools’ obscure musical characteristics as much as they reveal them. “New Romanticism” meant, at the time, the rehabilitation of tonal harmony, but Druckman’s music was romantic (lower case) all along in a different sense: it is music that speaks directly to the sense of hearing, in a very sensual and almost super-sensual way. Druckman’s medium was tone-color, the dimension of music that achieved emancipation in the 20th century thanks to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Varèse, Messaien, even Schoenberg (see his orchestral work “Farben”) and Ives.

Elliott Carter has written somewhere that a modern composer must have the same command over all the possible colors of the instruments and their orchestral combinations that had earlier been expected in the realms of melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. Druckman (along with contemporaries like Carter, Crumb, Ligeti, and Lutoslawski, but to an even greater extent) used color not as an add-on but as a fundamental way to build a composition. In this work, there are not themes per se, but rather sound-masses that possess different energy-levels, degrees of shadow or light, registral mass, and focus or diffusion. “Aureoles” morphed seamlessly from one state to the next, starting mysteriously with murmuring clarinets and marimbas, and transitioning continuously through sparkling and aurally entrancing color shifts, eventually achieving a kind of controlled orgy of brass and percussion reminiscent of “The Rite of Spring,” without any hint of overt imitation, to arrive at a thrilling climax. From that point on the music returned (without any literal repetition) to a quiet play of tints and fleeting sonorities that mirrored the opening. The orchestra did some of its best playing of the evening in this work, with balances and dynamics perfectly calibrated; each individual in the large orchestra knew what made this piece tick and offered his or her sound to the larger whole as subtly as an underground spring feeds a lake. The clear, economical direction from Keitaro Harada, who knew the complex score cold, enabled the work to unfold as if it were a natural process.

Colin Matthews’ large-scale orchestral fresco “Turning Point” allowed us to hear one of Britain’s well-established musical voices in a characteristic mode. (Matthews is an experienced orchestral composer, and is perhaps best-known here for adding the movement “Pluto” to Holst’s “The Planets.”) In the present work, the complex orchestral writing served a dramatic curve which, according to the composer’s own commentary, found its shape as the compositional process went along (taking a few years to complete). One experienced a total mastery of the orchestra, but rather than the protean shifts heard in the Druckman, here there was a Beethovenian sense of the ensemble always functioning as a whole, whether through its representatives (the individual instruments) or as a literal “tutti.” The impression is of a massive presence either held in check or fully active. This is not to imply a piece that was all loud high energy. Its most memorable moments were quite the opposite: the “turning point” referred to in the title finds the music, which started fast and then got faster, suddenly reining back, with fullness giving way to a sense of a vast, mysterious, mostly empty acoustical space. I heard quiet trumpet fanfares echoing in the distance, bringing immediately to mind the setting of Wilfred Owen’s “Bugles sang” from the “Dies irae” of Britten’s “War Requiem,” which suggested another whole series of parallels between the two composers, not surprising in view of the influence Britten had on Matthews himself along with his whole generation. The work concluded with a greatly extended song for full string section set in counterpoint to contrasting intermittent activity in the rest of the orchestra. The emotional impact was that of music finding its voice and finally being able to sing; it was quite moving.

At age 101, Carter is in a unique position to set the poem entitled “What Are Years” since he is fully in command of a formidable and highly refined compositional technique in the service of what has always been a high-power intellect particularly sensitive to the sensibilities of contemporary poetry, now informed by about eighty years of compositional experience. The poem in question constituted the fifth and final text in Carter’s new cycle devoted to the work of Marianne Moore, Pulitzer Prize winner and unofficial poet laureate of Brooklyn. (Full disclosure: Marianne Moore’s poem of tribute to the 1955 Dodgers for their World Series hangs on my office wall.) In his program notes, Robert Kirzinger enumerated the modern American poets (i.e. roughly his contemporaries) set by Carter during the last 35 years (his “late” period?) including Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, John Hollander, Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, and also from this year, e.e. cummings. “What Are Years” exhibits the more recent simplification of Carter’s style which displays the character and drama of the text in immediate but always intelligent ways. The use of the term “simplification” is relative; Carter continues to use contrapuntally complex textures and colors and multilayered, irregularly pulsed rhythms, but always in service to the idea behind the poetry. The chamber orchestra (about 30 strong), directed sympathetically and expertly by Oliver Knussen, was a repository of many colors and a full range of dynamic gestures, but had a transparency and kaleidescopic range of colors utterly different from its program mates, and was able to offer full power without covering Ms Davis’ attractive, clear, and articulate soprano voice. Each of the five poems displayed a different facet of Moore’s and Carter’s blended voices. All engage paradoxes central to human existence, a theme for which Carter’s mastery of multi-level structural interactions offers the perfect musical counterpart. “Like a Bulwark” engages in the political paradox that war (or at least conflict) is employed ostensibly to prevent change, to hold on to things-as-they-were. Carter’s vocal lines have always been a form of inflected readings, and in the past have seemed less lyrically expressive than more traditionally-oriented song composers (e.g. Ned Rorem or even John Harbison, to name two younger colleagues). But in this work I found more expression concentrated in the vocal line, particularly in the first song on the words “tempest-tossed” and “Old Glory.” The second song, “That Harp You play So Well,” scored for cello and harp, is another plea for peace addressed to David, master of the harp as well as the sling; the poet asks “…if the heart/ Be brass, what boots the art/ Of exorcising wrong,/ Of harping to a song?” The cello serves as the poet eloquently interrogating the harper.

The third song, “The Being So-Called Human,” contemplates three further paradoxes of the human condition, the oxymorons of boldness/cowardliness, strength/vulnerability, and fear of death/ever-renewing appetite for life. The emotional intensity of the vocal line here may indicate Carter’s powerful sense of identification with this text. The witty “To an Intra-Mural Rat” addresses “You” both a rat and someone whose identity remains unclear (a “poem à clef?”); the brevity of this rapid piece (about 25 seconds long) reflects its subject whose haste makes it “Too brisk to be inspected.” The last and longest song, “What Are Years,” engages the guilt/innocence duality; as the Reverand Jackson says in the new film “Get Low,” good and evil, apparent opposites, rarely occur in pure form—they tend to get “all tangled up with each other.” Here, Moore’s textual evocation of “the unanaswered question” summons a ghostly memory of the young Carter’s friend Charles Ives, who also appreciated that the human struggle which “in its surrendering/ finds its continuing” (eloquently expressed in the final moments of his Fourth Symphony). The poem and Carter’s cycle ends by answering the questions of the first and third poems, praising the “mighty singing” which finds joy in mortality which is also eternity. Although Carter continues to avoid wearing his heart on his sleeve, and stubbornly insists that the mind be engaged along with the heart, the “mighty singing” of this unique centenarian musican grows ever more powerful and deeply moving with the years of his writing and of our listening. In this way he answers the question posed by the work’s title. He also did so in another way by being present to once again acknowledge the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

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