See also Nancy Salz’s “A Tanglewood Conducting Master Class — My Bird’s Eye View.”
The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste; he had the wisdom to restrict the number of composers, so that we could hear more than a single work by the less familiar of them. Unfortunately the Festival was scheduled a week later than usual, creating a conflict with the first weekend of the Bard Festival, and I didn’t get to hear as many of the concerts as I’d have liked. I hope that the postponement of the FCM was due to the Tanglewood 75th anniversary celebrations and that it will return to its usual slot in the first week of August. There are plenty of people who are interested in both Festivals, and they shouldn’t have to make a choice.
I’ll begin with Pierrot, not only Guimard and Schoenberg’s famous Pierrot, but other creatures of the imagination, some kindred to Pierrot only through music or even vaguer ties within the culture of the early twentieth century. Apart from Pierrot Lunaire, the concluding centerpiece, the program mined the wealth of stunning vocal music that came out of England, Russia, France, Brazil, Spain, and the United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century, most of it on the eve of the Great War. Of these, only the American, Charles T. Griffes, lacked close ties to Paris and its musical life. Of the songs by Griffes, John Ireland, Rachmaninoff, Villa-Lobos, Debussy, Ravel, and Falla, which preceded Pierrot, only the Mallarmé settings by the two French composers could considered as familiar. Oh, and did I say there were songs by Irving Berlin and Ernie Burnett? What a delicious and varied musical banquet it was!
Tanglewood Music Center Fellows
Sunday, July 22, 2012, 8.00 pm
Florence Gould Auditorium,
Seiji Ozawa Hall
Hommage To Pierrot
John Ireland (1879-1962)
Songs of a Wayfarer (1903-1911)
II. When Daffodils Begin to Peer
III. English May
IV. I Was Not Sorrowful
V. I Will Walk on the Earth
James Barbato, Tenor
Wei-Han Wu, Piano
Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)
Tone-Images, Op. 3 (1912-1914)
I. La fuite de la lune
II. Symphony in Yellow
III. We’ll to the woods, and gather may
Jacquelyn Matava, Mezzo Soprano
Matihew Gemmill, Piano
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Selected Songs, Op. 34 (1912)
I. Veter pereljotnyi
IV. Sej den’, ja pomnju
Ilana Zarankin, Soprano
Kara Huber, Piano
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
I. Chromo No.2
II. A Viola
III. Chromo No.3
VI. Sino da Aldeia
Andrew Fuchs, Tenor
Paul Jarski, Piano
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913)
II. Placet futile
Yoongeong Lee, Soprano
Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, Piano
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913)
II. Placet futile
III. Surgi de la croupe et du bond
Clarissa Lyons, Soprano
Pamela Daniels, Flute
Martha Long, Flute*
John Diodati, Clarinet
Christopher Pell, Clarinet
Micah Ringham, Violln*
Alex Shiozaki, Violln*
Derek Mosloff, Viola*
Michael Dahlberg, Cello*
Wei-Han Wu, Piano And Rehearsal Piano
Alexandre Bloch, Conductor
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Jacquelyn Matava, Mezzo Soprano
Martha Long, Flute*
Micah Ringham, Violln*
Derek Mosloff, Viola*
Michael Dahlberg, Cello*
Julia Coronelli, Harp
Matthew Gemmill, Rehearsal Piano
Irving Berlin (1888-1989)
Selected Songs (1911-1914)
Won’t you playa simple melody
Ev’rybody’s doin’ it now
Alexander’s ragtime band
Ernie Burnett (1884-1959)
My Melancholy Baby (1912)
Matthew Morris, Baritone
Bretton Brown, Piano
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)
I. Mondestrunken °t0
II. Colombine †
III. Der Dandy †
IV. Eine Blasse Wäscherin °
V. Valse de Chopin °
VI. Madonna ()
VII. Der Kranke Mond ()
VIII. Nacht ()
IX. Gebet an Pierrot †
X. Raub °
XI. Rote Messe ()
XII. Galgenlied °†()
XIII. Enthauptung †
XIV. Die Kreuze °
XV. Heimweh †
XVI. Gemeinheit †
XVII. Parodie ()
XVIII. Der Mondfleck ()
XIX. Serenade ()
XX. Heimfahrt °
XXI. O Alter Duft °†o
Kristina Bachrach, Soprano°
Amy Petrongelli, Soprano†
Ilana Zarankin, Soprano ()
Danny Goldman, Clarinet*
Alex Shiozaki, Violin And Viola*
Michael Dahlberg, Cello*
Alexander Bernstein, Piano*
Vlad Agachi, Conductor
* New Fromm Player
All the singers sang with the intensity that comes after a period of concentrated preparation and the anticipation of a major event. Vocal production was not always as it should have been, but their musical understanding and the conviction of their phrasing and expression were consistently impressive. They had also worked out close collaborations with their accompanists, with the result that we were hearing complete performances, not what we hear from a pianist hired for an evening. If I single out Matthew Morris, the baritone who took on the Berlin songs and Burnett’s “My Melancholy Baby,” it is not because he was any better than his peers — all were outstanding — but because his delivery of the songs was so sophisticated and polished that it conveyed a highly amusing archness, which was more intended to entertain than to make fun of the old favorites. Mr. Morris also poured a bit of Noël Coward and German cabaret into the American cocktail. It will be interesting to see what he does with his talents in the future.
Arnold Schoenberg’s own cabaret act, Pierrot Lunaire, was equally over the top. The score itself is like that to begin with, but in this performance we were regaled with not one, but three sopranos, who added to the nightmarish quality of the songs, as if they were some female Geryon who had come to threaten us in our dreams — and all for the better. They sang Mondestrunken, Galgenlied, and O alter Duft as a threesome and took turns for the rest. Pierrot lunaire needs no added interest, but I did enjoy comparing their approaches, all highly accomplished, and vividly imagined and sung. And they did sing the Sprechstimme rather than declaim it. The opening trio made this clear. (The cycle was first performed by an actress, and today it is the province of both professions.) This emphasis on singing — and the young singers took care to sing well even when called on to make strange sounds — proved entirely successful, although German pronunciation was not always perfect.
This was also a conducted performance. Often virtuoso chamber groups will perform it without a conductor. This and the rich Ozawa Hall acoustics gave it a light orchestral sound — and this was gorgeous — but the conductor, Vlad Agachi, never allowed it to lose its chamber character. His beat was clear and kept the players in unanimous ensemble, but he interacted with them closely through eye-contact and gesture, while giving them their freedom as a chamber group. The playing had plenty of bite, vigor, and flexibility within the homogeneous acoustic, and the players themselves were masterful. The highest praise to Mr. Agachi for treading this fine line between control and encouragement so intuitively.
The next evening, Monday, July 23rd, the amazing concert already discussed by Keith Kibler and Larry Wallach followed hard on its heels, with Ives’ Three Places in New England, Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka. For my part, I was delighted from beginning to end. Stefan Asbury is a master at getting the TMC Orchestra to play with both vigor and clarity, without either getting in the way of the other, and Three Places had all the Ivesian sass one could want, coupled with discipline and transparency. I have never heard so much of the detail in “Putnam’s Camp” before, and that was thrilling in itself. Mr. Asbury worked the same magic in Petrushka, balancing vivid instrumental color, energy, detail, and a strong sense of narrative. If the expression was a trifle deliberate, it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of Petrushka — quite the contrary. Ken-David Masur took over for the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax, a great master of the score. Masur’s rapport with the orchestra and Mr. Ax was so close and keenly attuned, that the piece came across as chamber music. This brilliant evening of great music was one of the high points of the season.
Monday July 30, 8 pm
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, Alexandre Bloch, Ken-David Masur, and Vlad Agachi, conductors
Tanglewood Music Center Conducting Fellows
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Magnus Lindberg – “Gran Duo” for winds (Alexandre Bloch)
Messiaen – Oiseaux exotiques (Ken-David Masur)
Nicholas Namoradze, piano
Varèse – Intégrales for Winds and Percussion (Vlad Agachi)
Stravinsky – Les Noces (Charles Dutoit)
The TMC brass and woodwinds aligned themselves in two rows at the right side of the stage to play Lindberg’s “Grand Duo.” The attractive, but not overly fascinating thematic material provided for simple lines, which invited us to immerse ourselves in the sound of the work. There was a certain amount of competition between the two groups of instruments, but also important passages in which they come together, producing a resonant, handsome sonority. The work was quite pleasurable, especially with the sound of the TMC players in the Ozawa Hall acoustic, although the work did seem a bit long for what it offered. Alexandre Bloch, who conducted with winning assurance, kept the rhythms crisp and the ensemble clean.
In Oiseaux exotiques Messiaen followed his own subtle way of interweaving the imitations of natural sounds (i.e. birdcalls) with the formal arrangements of notes which mark a musical composition. The formal and the imitative play back and forth against each other so seamlessly that bars one heard in one performance as one kind of expression will seem like the other in another performance. There is a second layer of imitation as one mode imitates the other. In this performance Ken-David Masur brilliantly attempted to explore both aspects, while paying close attention to the structure of the piece. Pianist Nicholas Namoradze, on the other hand, leaned a bit more toward the formal, playing with impressive virtuosity and a big bravura sound, recalling a Romantic piano concerto at times. A good deal of the composer’s wit came through (Those are really very wilful, naughty birds!) as well as a brilliant tonal palette that went far beyond what Lindberg permitted himself.
Vlad Agachi led the players in a respectful performance of Varèse’s Intégrales for Winds and Percussion, and made a brave effort to make the most of the piece without distorting it — not that it is actually deficient, but it does sound a trifle dated today. To us, as Varèse tries to push the musical envelope and the critics’ buttons along with it, we hear his references, Stravinsky and jazz, for example, in a different, more historical light. In an attempt to impress his listeners as “bleeding edge” and to shock them, he went a little too far in addressing them specifically, rather than drawing his music from within, unlike Stravinsky, whose shocks come from his imagination and Schoenberg’s which flow from his heart. Vlad Agachi and the players deserve high honors for playing the music honestly, without masking it in effect.
The concert closed with another self-consciously daring work, but a masterpiece, Stravinsky’s Les Noces, one which can still irritate strained performers and audiences who don’t quite manage to follow along. Les Noces is one of Stravinsky’s great works and one of his most original, with its direct use of folk tunes and its translation of crude peasant instruments into four concert pianos and a large modern percussion ensemble. It took most of ten years to reach the stage, in which it was performed by the Ballets Russes in 1923 with Bronislava Nijinska’s choreography. Stravinsky conceived the ballet hard on the heels of Le Sacre du Printemps. He finished a short score in late 1917, scoring it for a large orchestra, similar to the forces he used in Le Sacre, but he later thought of scoring it for two groups of percussion, one ptiched and the other not. The pianos were originally to be synchronized player pianos. The next version, that of 1919, substituted double-keyboard cimbaloms, a pianola, and a harmonium.
Charles Dutoit conducted, rounding out his magnificent series of concerts at Tanglewood. As in these performances, he adopted a fairly deliberate tempo with a view to letting a great deal of detail be heard — not only harmonies and ensemble timbres, but the shapes of rhythms and rests. This detail emerged from a well-blended whole, always clear, but never exaggerated. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the four TMC pianists, and the TMC percussionists produced a gorgeous sound, and it resonated miraculously in the acoustic — there was every reason for Maestro Dutoit to luxuriate in the music ever so slightly. This performance is less hard-edged than many you hear today. If you listen to the 1961 recording under Ansermet, who conducted the premiere, it has a similar bloom and blend. This also gave the young singers a little room to take hold of their rapid-fire Russian lines, and all of them took full advantage of it. They seemed to love the music and relish the enterprise. The TFC also took on their Russian lines with terrific zest. Greeted with wild applause by a very full house, this was one of the great moments of the summer.
Many of us feel some regret when these Monday night concerts wind down at the end of July, but the TMC Fellows keep going in the Festival of Contemporary Music. This year, the Festival, directed by Oliver Knussen, had the most compelling programming and the highest overall musical quality since the Carter Tribute of 2008. First of all it was coherent, since Knussen concentrated on TMC figures like Gunther Schuller and Elliott Carter and on British composers within his own circle, some older than he, but most younger. Further, there was music by Niccolò Castigioni (1932-96), who was a discovery for many of us. Best of all, in Castilgioni’s case and in others, we got to hear more than one piece, giving us a more complete idea of their work. Concerts packed with single works, often short ones, by a host of composers is only frustrating, not that recent Festivals didn’t give us many valuable experiences and ideas to take away.
Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music
Thursday, August 9, 8pm
Florence Gould Auditorium, Seiji Ozawa Hall
Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center and the New Fromm Players
Harrison Birtwistle (B. 1934)
Cantus lambeus (2005)
Alexandre Bloch, conductor
Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
Double Trio (2011)
Vlad AgachI, conductor
Luke Bedford (b. 1978)
On Voit Tout En Aventure (2006)
Jonathan Berman,* conductor
Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-96)
Quickly, Theme and Variations for 23 instruments (1994)
Pamela Daniels, flute and piccolo; Beverly Wang,* oboe; William Amsel, clarinet and bass clarinet; Thomas Schneider, bassoon and contrabassoon; Andrew Mee, horn; Erin Dowrey, percussion; Michael Maganuco,* harp; Andrew Zhou, piano; Ku Won Kwon, violin I; Cynthia Burton, violin 2; Christiana Reader, viola; Jesse Christeson, cello; Eric Lamm, double bass; Ryan Beach, trumpet; Brian Santero, trombone; Andres Pichardo-Rosenthal, percussion; Sarah Silver, violin; Diana Flores, cello; Katherine Dowling, piano Yoongeong Lee, soprano
Henrik Heide, flute and piccolo; Beverly Wang,* oboe and English horn; Ching-Chieh Hsu, clarinet and bass clarinet; Andrew Brady, bassoon and contrabassoon; Nicholas Hartman, horn; Stuart Stephenson, trumpet; Paul Jenkins,* trombone; Erin Dowrey and Kirk Etheridge, percussion; Michael Maganuco,* harp; Sam Suggs,* accordion; Wen-Tso Chen, violin I; Julia Noone, violin 2; Evan Perry, viola; Patricia Ryan, cello; Brandon Mason, double bass
Theme (solo violin)
Variation 1 (piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet)
Variation 2 (piano, suspended cymbal)
Variation 3 (harp, harpsichord)
Variation 4 (celesta, glockenspiel)
Variation 5 (woodwinds, piano, 4 violins)
Variation 6 (piccolo, horn, trumpet, trombone, harpsichord, xylophone) Variation 7 (brass, piano, xylophone, 2 violins)
Variation 8 (various)
Variation 9 (violins; wind chimes)
Variation 10 (woodwinds, bells)
Variation 11 (celesta and others)
Variation 12 (various)
Variation 13 (woodwinds, celesta, triangle)
Variation 14 (woodwinds, piano; brass) Variation 15 (brass)
Variation 16 (harp, glockenspiel, violins) Variation 17 (piccolo)
Variation 18 (piccolo)
Variation 19 (piccolo, flute, E-flat clarinet)
Variation 20 (harp, piano, harpsichord, celesta, glockenspiel) Variation 21 (piano, bells, violins)
Variation 22 (woodwinds)
Variation 23 (tutti)
Alexandre Bloch, conductor
Pamela Daniels and Henrik Heide, flutes; Beverly Wang,* oboe; Ching-Chieh Hsu, clarinets; Andrew Mee, horn; David Cohen, trumpet; Nick Mahon, trombone; Kirk Etheridge, percussion; Julia Coronelli, harp; Andrew Zhou, celesta; Alex Peh, harpsichord; Nicolas Namoradze, piano; Julia Noone, violin 1; Wen-Tso Chen, violin 2; Cynthia Burton, violin 3; Ku Won Kwon, violin 4; Autumn Chodorowski, violin 5; Lee Sheehan, violin 6; Jordan Koransky, violin 7; Jacob Joyce, violin 8; Thomas Hofmann, violin 9; Ludek Wojtkowski, violin 10; Zou Yu, violin
Sean Shepherd (b. 1979)
These Particular Circumstances (2009)
Jonathan Berman,* conductor
Henrik Heide, flute; Beverly Wang,* oboe; William Amsel, clarinet; Andrew Brady, bassoon; Nicholas Hartman, horn; Stuart Stephenson, trumpet; Paul Jenkins,* trombone; Erin Dowrey and Kirk Etheridge, percussion; Michael Maganuco,* harp; Nana Shi, piano; Jordan Koransky, violin 1; Jacob Joyce, violin 2; Amanda Grimm, viola; Jesse Christeson, cello; Brandon Mason, double bass
The lucidity of Oliver Knussen’s scheme was immediately apparent in the first concert, which opened with important pieces by the respective doyens of English and American music, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle and Elliott Carter. The second half began with Castiglioni, a contemporary of Sir Harrison’s who deserves better recognition. Both halves of the concert concluded with works by British composers still in their early thirties, Luke Bedford, a protégé of Mr. Knussen’s, and Sean Shepherd, who is familiar to New York audiences, especially through the piece played here, These Particular Circumstances, which was commissioned by Alan Gilbert for 2009, his first season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. In the middle of these four composers stands Oliver Knussen himself (b. 1952), who in the years following his Tanglewood fellowship went back and forth between England and the United States, and who, as Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, is the official heir of Benjamin Britten, just as Birtwhistle is the unofficial heir of Elgar and Vaughan Williams.
Birtwistle’s Cantus iambeus, which began the concert, had a Brahmsian feel to it, not least because the iambic rhythms of its title recall the phrases of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. Like Brahms, who was a great admirer of the composers who preceded J. S. Bach, Birtwistle’s studious, but artistically fruitful — anything but pedantic — cultivation of medieval compositional methods, in this case, the hocket, i.e. a staggering of rests in different voices, a device audible throughout the work. In spite of the rather nervous rhythms resulting from these concepts, the work has an implied longer pattern to it, which almost affects the listener as elegiac. Birtwistle’s use of early polyphony is learned, but assimilated on levels deeper than the intellectual. Used in this way, the lessons of early music are as vital for today’s music as they were for Brahms in his time. The TMC musicians played with precision and vigor, and Alexandre Bloch contributed his lively control of the proceedings.
If the Birtwistle had basically an orchestral quality in its writing and textures, Carter’s Double Trio of 2011 was pure chamber music. In this he played off a trumpet and trombone against percussion, piano, and violin and cello. The interaction of the different instruments and their voices, seemed almost improvisatory, however meticulously the music was composed. Vlad Agachi, in contrast to Bloch, conducts more like a primus inter pares than a controlling figure on a podium, and this was entirely in the spirit of Carter’s delightful music.
Luke Bedford’s On voit tout en aventure cleaves a striking balance between ancient music and modern. He set medieval French texts to music which reflect at least some indirect connection to their sources, but which is entirely in a contemporary musical language — a highly introspective and expressive one. Why not admit it? There are Neo-Romantics walking among us…with a touch of Ravel, in this case. Yoongeong Lee sang most beautifully, and Jonathan Berman conducted with authority and feeling.
Niccolò Castiglioni’s 1994 work, Quickly, Theme and Variations for 23 Instuments, made a powerful impression with its clarity and lively invention. Nothing could arouse more suspicion as a superficial gimmick than a series of variations, each concentrated on a different selection of instruments, but the composer developed the composition and instrumentation so rigorously that his work gained real power in its sensual, but rigorous economy. In our vicinity, everyone wanted to hear more of Castiglioni’s music — a desire which was rewarded during the course of the festival.
The final work, Sean Shepherd’s These Particular Circumstances, (2009) was the only one to disappoint, because he seemed to spin his ideas out long after they had made their point. There were also arch, post-modern quotations, which irritated more than they stimulated. Nonetheless there was a lot of absorbing, well-wrought music here, especially in the early part. Perhaps Mr. Shepherd will think again and produce a concentrated de-postmodernized version that will entirely represent his own thoughts and feelings. If the piece was overworked and too long, but I don’t think it was because of ego, but because of sheer nerdiness, that is, the obsession of the young composer, who lives withing and through music.
Keith Kibler has already reported on the important Sunday concert, which included Oliver Knussen’s opera, Higglety-Pigglety-Pop. I returned, following a weekend in nineteenth century France at the Bard Music Festival, to hear the closing Monday evening concert with the TMC Orchestra.
Monday August 13, 8 pm
Florence Gould Auditorium, Seiji Ozawa Hall The Margaret Lee Crofts Concert
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Stefan Asbury,# Alexandre Bloch, And Oliver Knussen,* conductors
Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934)
Sonance Severance 2 0 0 0 (1999)
Oliver Knussen, conductor
Helen Grime (b. 1981)
Everyone Sang (2010) Stefan Asbury, conductor
Gunther Schuller (b. 1925)
Commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center with generous support
from the New Works Fund
Oliver Knussen, conductor
I. Scherzo umoristico e curioso
III. Birth – Evolution – Culmination
George Benjamin (b. 1960)
Duet for piano and orchestra (2008) Oliver Knussen, conductor
Peter Serkin,* piano
Luke Bedford (b. 1978)
Outblaze the Sky (2006) Alexandre Bloch, conductor
David Del Tredici (b. 1937)
Happy Voices (Child Alice Part II) (1980)
Stefan Asbury, conductor
#TMC faculty *Guest artist
Balancing the first concert, it began with Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance, a very short piece commemorating the restoration of Severance Hall in Cleveland, followed by Everyone Sang, an absorbing work by a British composer of the younger generation, Helen Grime, and ending the first part with one of a much-anticipated highlight of the Tanglewood 75th anniversary season, Dreamscape, a new commission from Gunther Schuller, an immensely important figure at the TMC and in American music in general. The second half consisted of a meticulously conceived and constructed Duet for Piano and Orchestra by George Benjamin, most sensitively played by Peter Serkin and the TMC Orchestra under Oliver Knussen, Luke Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky, conducted by Alexandre Bloch, and David del Tredici’s Happy Voices (Child Alice Part II), magnificently conducted by Stefan Asbury.
Helen Grimes’ Everyone Sang, a riff on a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, is, on an obvious level, a tone poem. Melody is an important part of it, functioning as a “‘narrative’ foundation, a through-line” (as Robert Kirzinger explains in his program note), which tells the story of troops striking up a song during a pause in the fighting During the Great War. Grime’s part-writing and texture evoke choral music, and, although there are no parts for voice in it, one can’t help recalling a narrative choral work or even a scene from an opera. It was, in any case, meticulously constructed, deeply absorbing, and moving. Grime herself has said that Sassoon’s title “seemed to resonate with the images of song, unity, hope, and a sense of fragility that are all central to my piece.” Stefan Asbury conducted with full sympathy.
Gunther Schuller, now 86, contributed Dreamscape, a work which shared the coherent writing and the spell-casting qualities of Everyone Sang. The former is perhaps surprising given that the entire work — a very complex one — came to Schuller in a dream. It is no secret that some people begin to dream with a great deal of clarity when the get on in years. Perhaps Mr. Schuller has even been practicing. As Oliver Knussen most eloquently conducted it, Dreamscape, made a powerful impression on the audience, which was, as one might expect, densely populated by his colleagues. The response came from nothing other than sincere admiration and the pleasure of hearing fine music.
The music of George Benjamin is all about fine music. For him, a pupil of Messiaen, craftsmanship and the creative process are one and the same. Born in 1960, Mr. Benjamin is bordering on the more mature generation of composers, but one could have thought the Duet was written by a composer of a younger generation. I’m sure he won’t be offended if I count him among them, in all admiration of his deeply thought-out work. rich in subtle interactions between the pianist, in this case Peter Serkin, and the orchestra. Mr. Benjamin’s belief that the piano and the orchestra, especially the violins, are fundamentally incompatible make strike some as eccentric. It comes from the short duration of the piano’s notes. He also finds the pseudo-heroic role of the piano in the nineteenth century concerto especially antipathetic. I think he makes an important point in this, and that a consideration of period pianos and their qualities — not only the pianos of the 1830s, but the instruments of Chopin, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms — make a valuable contribution to this problem. This has inspired Benjamin to omit the higher strings from his orchestra in his Duet. Whatever doctrine is behind his decisions, the work is both fascinating and beautiful in its construction. Benjamin is new to me, and I am keen to hear more.
In general Oliver Knussen’s choices reflect the trends of his own generation, above all the renewed interest in tonality, narrative and/or vocal music, and accessible, common emotions. Luke Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky, although he is in fact a pupil of Knussen’s, revives qualities and techniques of an older generation, that of Stockhausen and Kirchner, composers guided by the Second Vienna School. It is both intensely concentrated and dependent on the Schoenbergian technique of Klangfarbenmelodie, which also points back to Debussy’s impressionism. On the other hand, although it is less than six minutes long, it follows a narrative of sorts, more symbolically than literally, and, like Everyone Sang, it has a literary source, a British one, D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel. Alexandre Bloch’s strong control and precise beat served the many exquisite and disturbing details of this work impeccably.
David del Tredici’s Happy Voices (Child Alice Part II) a generally loud work for large orchestra was presumably intended to close the Festival of Contemporary Music in a high-spirited mood, and perhaps that worked for some, but I suspect that many people, including myself, were left somewhat bemused by this splashy display of redundance. I think Del Tredici’s “Alices” are best arrpoached as period pieces. It takes us back to the late 1970s, a moment in American music, when the symphonies of Mahler were fresh discoveries for many people and a composer could gain some mileage by imitating them. I could picture a crowd of blissful Mahlerites back in 1980, crowded into Avery Fisher Hall, feeling very good about this music and themselves, but musical taste has moved on, although Mahler is still more enthusiastically appreciated that he deserves to be. Del Tredici, along with John Adams, was one of the American composers most closely associated with the “return of tonality,” and Mahler offered a potent hypertext for this movement. Not that Happy Voices isn’t skilfuly assembled and handsome in its Mahlerian orchestration, especially as played by the TMC Orchestra under the wonderful Stefan Asbury, but the same effect kept coming back, as if Mr. Del Tredici were one of those hucksterish characters in Terry Gilliam’s movies, one who keeps repeating, as he stares into the camera, “You thought this music was about to end, didn’t you, but I have another super-fantastic turn for you, and you’ll just love it!” In Happy Voices, I sensed this at least three times. My companion, a composer, remarked that the work was about a third too long, that is, by half of its proper duration, and that about sums it up, but no amount of cutting could mitigate its heady narcissism.
And then there’s the Alice problem. Not all of us are besotted with Alice in Wonderland. Like Wagner, it is possible, even salutary, to enjoy and admire the various activities of Charles L Dodgson without becoming obsessed. I won’t attempt to inventory Del Tredici’s works on the theme, but it is significant that Final Alice was not the last of them. In our civilization we are well-stocked with bores of all shapes and sizes: wine bores and travel bores, fashion bores, political bores, Toscanini bores, Furtwängler bores, and countless others, but the most noisome bore of all is the Alice bore.
Even if Happy Voices raises my hackles, no one can say that it is really a bad piece, although outstaying one’s welcome is a serious error for a composer, these two FCM concerts were almost entirely pure gold, and I very much regret missing what came in between. I’m sure the organizers will see the disservice of conflicting with the Bard Music Festival, especially since it will be devoted next year to Igor Stravinsky. Although Oliver Knussen has had a strong presence in the U.S. and the TMC over the years and made a brilliant effort at balancing the two national centers, these concerts could not have presented a more potent advertisement for British music today, from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle (b. 1934), through Knussen (b. 1951) himself, through Benjamin (b. 1960) to Bedford (b. 1978) and Grime (b. 1980). Whether one is German, French, Canadian, or American, one should be listening to this music. One recently survey of twentieth century music made the jaw-droppingly stupid assertion that British music was basically an isolated, even provincial national school, like the music of Czechoslovakia or Finland. Whilst the best British composers, like Russian, French, or American composers, exhibit prominent national characteristics, nothing could be further from the truth, then or now. It is worth remembering how interesting the contrast of American and European composers was in 2009, when the FCM, with Augusta Read Thomas as Director, focused on a contrast between them.
For Erich Leinsdorf’s centenary, WGBH is offering his fascinating exit interview, filmed at Tanglewood in 1969. In it, he spoke rather dismissively of the TMC Fellows, whom he refers to as “students” or “kids.” No one would dare say that today. He is clearly aware of limitations which today seem to have been left far in the past. The path for improvement he outlined — a program that is more and more ambitious, populated with the best internationally recruited young musicians — has been fulfilled, and the result is a powerful group of chamber musicians and and a unique orchestra, made up of musicians who are more mature than those one would find in a youth orchestra, even the best, but who have still not borne the full brunt of musical professionalism, which can dampen the liveliest enthusiasm. Their staple in recent years, apart from their work at the FCM, has consisted of complex, difficult works of the twentieth century. Classics like Beethoven and Dvořák appear as exceptions. In other words, the musicians we shall have the pleasure of hearing develop over the next generation will have a highly sophisticated understanding of what a score can contain as well as powerful skills in their execution. There is every reason to be grateful for the extraordinary achievements of the TMC Fellows, and there could be no more eloquent testimony that Koussevitzky’s agenda has been fulfilled beyond anything he could have expected.