Music / Opera

The Long and the Short of it: Tanglewood’s 2013 Festival of Contemporary Music

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George Benjamin conducting his Opera, Written on Skin, with the TMC Orchestra in Seiji Ozawa Hall. Photo Hilary Scott.
George Benjamin conducting his Opera, Written on Skin, with the TMC Orchestra in Seiji Ozawa Hall. Photo Hilary Scott.

August 8 6pm
Elliott Carter – String Quartet No. 1
New Fromm Players
Sarah Silver and Matthew Leslie Santana- violin
Jocelin Pan – viola
Michael Dahlberg – cello

August 8 8pm
Elliott CarterInstances
Marco Stroppa Let Me Sing Into Your Ear
Helmut Lachenmann…zwei Gefühle… Musik mit Leonardo
Christian MasonYears of Light
Michele Marelli – basset horn
Tanglewood Music Center Fellows
Ciarán McAuley – conductor (Stroppa)
Stilian Kirov – conductor (Carter)

August 9 2:30pm
Elliott CarterEpigrams
Helmut LachenmannGrido
Marco StroppaTraietorria
Pierre-Laurent Aimard – piano
Marco Stroppa – electronics/sound projection
JACK Quartet
New Fromm Players
Sarah Silver – violin
Michael Dahlberg – cello

August 10 2:30pm
Marco StroppaOssia: Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone
Helmut LachenmannGot Lost
Elliott Carter90+, Retrouvailles, Tri-Tribute
Pierre-Laurent Aimard – piano
Elizabeth Keusch – soprano
Stephen Drury – piano
New Fromm Players

August 10 8.30pm
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3
Elliott Carter – Sound Fields
Brahms – Symphony No. 4
Christoph von Dohnányi – conductor
Yefim Bronfman – piano
Boston Symphony Orchestra

August 11 10am
György Ligeti – String Quartet No. 1
Marco Stroppa
Aye, There’s the Rub
Henri Dutilleux – from 3 Strophes pour le nom de Sacher
Conlon Nancarrow – Study No. 6 & 7 for two pianos, transcr. Adés
Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians
György Ligeti – Three Pieces: Monument–Self portrait–Movement
Conlon Nancarrow – player piano transcriptions
Mickey Katz, cello
The New Fromm Players
Tanglewood Music Center Fellows

August 12 8pm
George BenjaminWritten on Skin
George Benjamin – conductor
Evan Hughes – Protector
Lauren Snouffer – Agnès
Augustine Mercante – Boy and Angel 1
Tammy Coil – Marie and Angel 2
Isaiah Bell – John and Angel 3
Tanglewood Music Center Fellows

This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood had a distinguished guest director-curator, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is as admired for his performances of Elliott Carter as for his refined and powerful Debussy and Bach. He had something to convey to his audience, too. He wanted us to know the work of two living European composers important to him: the 53-year-old Italian Marco Stroppa and the 77-year-old German Helmut Lachenmann, figures little known in this country, although Stroppa was a student at MIT in the 1980s and in 2008 Lachenmann was a visiting professor of music at Harvard.

Disregarding political correctness, Aimard chose music exclusively by white males. Another major strand of the festival was a running tribute to the late Elliott Carter, who died last November just before his 104th birthday and who had been a major presence at Tanglewood (in 2008, the entire FCM was devoted to celebrating his centennial). There were also significant works by György Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow, and Steve Reich; a world premiere commission by the young British composer Christian Mason (a student of former FCM guest director George Benjamin); and a brief unscheduled memorial to another composer dear to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Henri Dutilleux, who was composer in residence at Tanglewood in both 1995 and 1998, and who died this past May at the age of 97. The grand finale of the long weekend was the American premiere, in concert, of an important new opera by George Benjamin.

How much one enjoyed the whole festival probably depended most on how captivated or surprised one may have been by Stroppa and Lachenmann, which also means how much one likes or is willing to absorb music that is most compelling for its sound qualities. Enjoyable and “interesting” as the timbres of Stroppa’s electronic expansions may be or the scraping, scratching, clacking, and clicking of Lachenmann’s sound world, I found that most of these pieces overstayed their welcome. They just went on too long, and their “avant-garde” inventiveness had an all too familiar ring. For all their sonic and structural experimentation, they seemed rather square rhythmically. “Interesting is boring,” Lachenmann is quoted as saying, and that was what I was too often feeling about his music.

Marco Stroppa
Marco Stroppa

It’s hard to imagine that these works could receive better performances. Aimard is a particular advocate of Stroppa, and his recording of the complete Traietorria (1989) is spectacular. This was originally three separate pieces, the third section, “Contrasti” (“Contrasts”), being the longest. But when Stroppa decided to put the three sections together, he also expanded each section. At Tanglewood, Aimard’s playing was dazzling—glistening and elegant despite the ferocious complexity of the amplified piano part. There was something exciting about watching Stroppa sitting at the electronic keyboard in the midst of the audience, as if he were making up the sounds as he went along (he wasn’t—though there’s some element of improvisation involved). But those electronic sounds seemed stuck in the ‘80s. The woman sitting next to me pulled out her smart phone and showed me a video of her wind chimes.

Ironically, despite the obvious advantages of a live performance, I enjoyed the piece more on the recording. The problem was that there were also other pieces on the program (“Hell,” as Sartre wrote, “is other people”), and it was wearying to hear them without any rest in between. Traiettoria immediately followed Lachenmann’s dense, half-hour-long third string quartet, Grido (Italian for “scream” or “shout,” but also letters in the names of the members of the Arditti Quartet), which made equally serious demands on the listener. Lachenmann wanted the four strings to sound like a single instrument, and the marvelous JACK Quartet (whose name is assembled from the first initials of each of the players) was exciting in its projection of Lachenmann’s interwoven textural densities. But in both pieces, I wasn’t sure how much musical substance lay beneath the sounds.

That evening got off to a brilliant start with the American premiere of Carter’s very last work, the gnomic Epigrams—12 separate short pieces, several less than a minute long, arranged by the composer into a coherent and bewitching unity. It’s Carter’s only piano trio, and is dedicated to Aimard, who played it first at the Aldeburgh Festival in England this past June. At Tanglewood he was joined by two impressive young string players—violinist Sarah Silver and cellist Michael Dahlberg—from the New Fromm Players, the elite alumni group of former Tanglewood Fellows who excel in contemporary music. The brief opening Epigram is the last section Carter ever completed, and ends on a vehemently definitive chord. The second and third Epigrams take us into eerie high harmonics and a restless scurrying reminiscent of Carter’s breakthrough 1951 First String Quartet. The ninth Epigram has a marvelously pixilated piano solo, which Aimard dug into, and the eleventh is one of Carter’s soulful threnodies for strings. The final Epigram ends with another classic Carter gesture—two quiet pizzicatos on the cello followed by one on the violin, as if to say, “Well, that’s it.”

Such an economical, inventive, playful, colorful, and touching farewell. Sometimes less really is more.

And sometimes more is more. The festival opened with a gripping and heroic performance of the Carter First String Quartet (1951)—more confident, perhaps, than exploratory—played by a quartet of New Fromm Players, including Silver and Dahlberg, violinist Matthew Leslie Santana, and violist Jocelin Pan. At some 45 minutes, this is Carter’s longest single work, not counting his one opera and the epic Symphonia, which he assembled from three pieces that were originally performed separately.

Here Carter consolidated his profound experiments with time, what came to be known as “metrical modulation,” which is something like each player proceeding at a separate and continually changing tempo, while some underlying element of a central pulse remains constant. Its four movements have only two pauses, which come not at the ends of movements but within them, so even entire movements are syncopated. Carter, a New Yorker, wrote the quartet when he was spending a year near the Sonora Desert in Arizona, and on one level it’s a musical depiction of the desert, especially the scurrying creatures (the fast movement is marked “Scorrevole”) and the eerie stillness. The Adagio is one of the great slow movements in all of music—time itself seems to stop. The desert becomes a metaphor for the deepest inward contemplation. Carter said his structure was influenced by Jean Cocteau’s film Blood of the Poet, which opened and closed with a collapsing smokestack, while everything in between took place in the split second between the opening and closing shots. In the quartet, the opening violin solo and closing cello solo become similar antipodes, a continuum momentarily interrupted (for nearly 45 minutes) by what is merely a split second in psychological time. This was the one extended instrumental piece in the festival that remained riveting throughout its considerable length.

The other Carter at the festival included Aimard playing three late piano pieces dedicated to Carter’s friends, each one over almost before it began: Retrouvailles (written for Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday), 90+ (dedicated to Gofreddo Petrassi, in which Carter maximizes the minimalistic 90 repetitions of the same note), and Tri-Tributes, a delicious set of three short tributes to James Levine’s family: his mother (Matribute), brother (Fratribute), and sister (Sistribute). And on a larger scale (eight minutes!), we got the East Coast premiere of Carter’s penultimate work, Instances, perhaps the most captivating of Carter’s last pieces, co-commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center and the Seattle Symphony, and dedicated to Seattle’s music director and former BSO assistant conductor, Ludovic Morlot. Tanglewood Fellow Stilian Kirov led an orchestra of 37 young soloists in an exquisite performance of this masterly piece, a concerto for orchestra, as BSO program annotator Robert Kirzinger referred to it. It begins like a comic basketball game, with the players passing around the orchestra brief pointillist episodes, little solo blurts, with single piano notes popping out over strings or flutes. Then, finally, for more than two minutes, there’s a sustained passage, marked “Tranquillo,” that seems to be a distillation of all of Carter’s time-stopping, heart-stopping slow movements. “A microcosm of a career,” Kirzinger called it. And a sublime one.

The final Carter of the weekend was actually the only contemporary piece on any of the weekend’s full BSO concerts: Sound Fields, Carter’s only piece for string orchestra (inspired, he said, by color field painting), which premiered at Tanglewood’s 2008 Carter centennial and is dedicated to Tanglewood Music Center director Ellen Highstein. Christoph von Dohnányi led the BSO in a luminous performance, with the antiphonal seating of the first and second violins allowing an uncannily clear projection of Carter’s layerings of sound, the strings moving slowly back and forth between different levels of density, and ending with one of his most ravishing chords.

The rest of the Stroppa and Lachenmann was not without interest if harder to assimilate. Stroppa’s Ossia: Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone (2005), a rare unamplified piece (a trio with New Fromm violinist Santana and pianist Katherine Dowling, and current Cello Fellow Louise Grévin) used the three players in varied combinations and had them moving, with less substantive effect, into different configurations around the stage for each movement. Tanglewood Conducting Fellow Ciarán McAuley led the US Premiere of the bleaker Let Me Sing Into Your Ear—Stroppa’s 2010 concerto for amplified basset horn—with the brilliant guest virtuoso Michele Marelli bringing this moody but underused 18th-century single-reed instrument into the 21st century (Marelli began by playing with his back to the audience). Apparently it was Karlheinz Stockhausen who got Marelli, a young clarinetist, to concentrate on the basset horn. And at the last FCM instrumental concert, BSO cellist Mickey Katz played Stroppa’s complex 2001 study for solo cello, Ay, There’s the Rub. More moving was Katz’s unscheduled addition to the program of one short section of Dutilleux’s 3 Strophes pour le nom de Sacher, the composer’s tribute to Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher—one of the few pieces that equaled Carter in lyricism and playfulness.

Helmut Lachenmann
Helmut Lachenmann

There were also two big Lachenmann vocal pieces. “…zwei Gefühle…, Musik mit Leonardo” (“Two Feelings, Music with Leonardo”) is his grim 1992 “setting” of two passages of Leonardo da Vinci’s prose, explorations of the nature of knowledge, with the always-terrific baritone Brian Church spitting out the Leonardo syllables (mostly consonants) that Lachenmann renders all but incomprehensible. More fun, if not exactly more comprehensible, were guest pianist Stephen Drury and the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Keusch in Got Lost (2008), which juxtaposes passages by Nietzsche and Pessoa (his poem “All love letters are ridiculous”) and an anonymous note in a Berlin elevator begging for the return of a lost laundry basket. More directly than the Leonardo, this seems to be a piece about inarticulateness, though I question any composer’s desire to consistently obliterate texts. In any event, Drury, plucking the piano strings and Keusch slapping her puffed cheek to pop the air out, and pronouncing the German word “jetzt” (“now”) as if it had three syllables, actually seemed to be getting a kick out of their efforts, and so, as a result, did we. It was one of the few moments in the festival that actually seemed to have a sense of humor.

Christian Mason’s new The Years of Light also has a vocal element—the opening lines for soprano and mezzo-soprano from a startlingly old-fashioned poem called “Lachrymae” by the 20th century British poet David Gascoyne. But the most memorable aspect of the piece was the not-always-entirely-audible choir of 12 harmonicas (Mason is a big fan of Bob Dylan’s). At the end, in an anomalous theatrical gesture, all 12 harmonica players filed out—and faded out—down the aisles of Ozawa Hall.

The most purely delightful pieces of the festival turned up at that final instrumental concert: two studies for player piano by the truly avant-garde and eccentric American composer Conlon Nancarrow (composed sometime between 1948 and 1976—that’s how little we know), arranged for two pianos by Thomas Adès. As played by Fellows Katherine Dowling and Nicolas Namoradze, these were breathless and breathtakingly syncopated tuneful numbers that had one’s virtual feet and hands tapping and clapping to ever-so-slightly out-of-sync rhythms, refreshingly unlike so many of the festival pieces in their concentration on—and reveling in—rhythm itself. (Carter was one of Nancarrow’s major admirers.)

That program began with a powerful and moving performance of Ligeti’s First String Quartet and ended with Steve Reich’s landmark Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), another refreshing change from the relentless sound-effects, whose subtle minimalist chordal changes go on for over an hour. This was surely the work that brought the biggest audience to Ozawa Hall, and most of the listeners (like some of the players themselves—especially on vibes) were grooving, mesmerized; though not everyone stayed to the end. I admit that after some 20 minutes, I tuned out and started to read the program notes, until a few minutes before Reich elbowed us to indicate that the end was finally approaching. The 18 conductorless Fellows were phenomenal, though when a Reich maven I spoke to afterwards remarked that the performance seemed a little square (it hadn’t occurred to me that this piece could really swing), it helped explain my own diminishing enthusiasm.

* * *

The festival ended with the piece people seemed most excited about. It was the FCM’s most ambitious undertaking—its longest and most demanding work. An opera—yet for an opera, relatively short: three acts without intermission, a mere 90 minutes. Although it was an important addition to a Tanglewood summer that already included performances of two 20th century operas (John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby and Britten’s Curlew River), it had the least connection with anything else performed at the contemporary music festival. Still, it was a triumph.

This was the American premiere of George Benjamin’s first full-length opera, Written on Skin, with a libretto by the prolific and sophisticated English playwright Martin Crimp. It arrived with plenty of advance fanfare. Alex Ross in the New Yorker was particularly excited about the first performance in Aix-en-Provence, writing:

more than a few pages of Written on Skin are as immaculate as anything that Benjamin has written, or, for that matter, anything composed since the heyday of Ravel. The score is magnificently free of clichés and longueurs. Orchestration teachers will add it to the curriculum, and students will marvel at the mind that could blend oboes, muted trumpets, pizzicato strings, and bongos into one scuttling, insectoid instrument. Yet the opera smolders with darker, wilder energies. Benjamin has found a way of painting on a large canvas, indulging in grand gestures while maintaining his fabled control of detail. . . . Written on Skin feels like the work of a genius unleashed….1

Hearing the concert version at Tanglewood, I wouldn’t argue with Ross. Even with younger singers with less overall heft than the singers on the superb CD recorded at last year’s world premiere (already out on Nimbus), Benjamin himself led the spectacular TMC Orchestra in a performance at once intensely refined and intensely stirring, even ferocious. And the live sound of his surprising orchestral textures (there are also mandolin, viola da gamba, bass and contrabass clarinets, and verrophone—a modern version of the glass harmonica) is even creepier, more insinuating and more visceral than on the recording.

The one stipulation for the original commission was that the opera had to have some connection to Aix-en-Provence. So Crimp’s plot is taken from a 13th century Provençal prose folk tale or razo—“Le Coeur Mangé” (“the eaten heart”)—in which the wealthy “Protector” discovers that his young wife is sleeping with the young artist whom he has brought home to produce an illuminated book picturing his extensive estate and chattel (including his wife). So he murders the artist, whose heart he feeds to his unfaithful wife. “Writing on skin,” therefore, refers not only to the vellum or parchment pages of the book but equally to the bodies of the characters whose passion becomes more important than life itself—even more important than art. For sheer gore, even Tosca can’t compete.

But this opera is no “shabby little shocker.” Crimp’s libretto also acknowledges that insane anger, brutality and lust didn’t end in the Middle Ages. They’re still with us, under shopping malls and parking lots, and in the bedroom. The most radical aspect of the story-telling was first developed in Benjamin and Crimp’s previous collaboration—their one-act quasi-opera Into the Little Hill, in which two singers act out the Pied Piper story, and speak in both the first and third person. The third-person element—the “he saids” and “she saids,” are present again in Written on Skin as a form of Brechtian distancing, underlining the artificiality of the story-telling and of opera itself. In the first production, the sets were not medieval but modern. So in at least this one way, the Tanglewood concert performance was less disorienting than the staged version—more like an oratorio than an opera, in which whoever is narrating sounds perfectly natural saying “The Boy said” or “The Wife said.” There’s even a “chorus” of three angels who narrate the action (they reminded me of the jazz trio in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, singing radio jingles that ironically comment on the empty lives of a sad middle-aged suburban married couple). Maybe the easy fit of this concert version makes the opera less unsettling than it’s supposed to be. But it works, and the story is so unsettling anyway, it hardly requires further help from a staging to upset the audience.

The operatic tradition out of which Written on Skin grows goes back to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Berg’s Wozzeck, two game-changing works both of which were based on recent plays, and both of which are divided into relatively short scenes with some of the most memorable music played during the scene changes. Pelléas, like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, also concerns a sexual triangle in which a young wife falls hopelessly in love with a young man close to her husband. All these end badly, though Wagner’s lovers at least achieve a mystical transfiguration absent in Debussy or Benjamin. More immediately, Benjamin, like his fellow British opera composer Thomas Adès, owes a lot to the operas of Benjamin Britten (whom Adès claims to dislike). It’s a nice coincidence that Britten’s first international success, Peter Grimes, was a Koussevitzky commission and like Written on Skin had its American premiere at Tanglewood (it was conducted by the young Leonard Bernstein). Like Britten (and Adès), Benjamin is willing to people his music dramas with unsympathetic characters. I hear some Stravinsky (the Symphonies of Wind Instruments) in some of Benjamin’s writing for winds, especially brasses, but overwhelmingly Benjamin’s references to Early Music orchestration, with its serenades and organ music, and its pounding “heartbeats,” sound like no one but himself.

As the Protector, the fine baritone Evan Hughes, a former Tanglewood Vocal Fellow now a guest artist, even managed to inject some sympathy into the self-centered and controlling Protector, as his rage shatters his complacency. He was joined by current Fellows Lauren Snouffer (Agnès, the young wife), countertenor Augustine Mercante (the artist, known as Boy, and Angel 1), mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil (Marie, Agnès’s sister and Angel 2), and tenor Isaiah Bell (John, Marie’s husband and Angel 3—earlier this summer, he was excellent as the Madwoman in Britten’s Curlew River, in Mark Morris’s production). Mercante seemed the most challenged by the vocal and dramatic demands, missing the intensity of passion that would make the Boy artist risk his skin for the young wife. Snouffer’s high-lying shrieks went a bit awry, though the basic quality of her attractive soprano is technically solid. I thought she was too much a minx, a tease out of one of Chaucer’s fabliaux, rather than someone desperate to understand and express her sexual desires, so she made a much less sympathetic Agnès than Barbara Hannigan on the recording.

As Written on Skin gets more and more performances (many are already in the works), it will be interesting to see how much of its white-hot coldness is inherent in the score, and how much individual performers can affect its essential qualities. In any event, this was another landmark for the Tanglewood Music Center and the Festival of Contemporary Music, for all of us who attended this remarkable event. And of course for George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, who are already planning their next opera.

  1. Alex Ross, Musical Events, “Illuminated,” The New Yorker, March 25, 2013, p. 104
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