Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, 2014 — ​The Return of Harmony: works by Tanglewood Music Center Alumni

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Daniel Cohen leading the TMCO and violinist Sarah Silver in Mackey's Beautiful Passing. Photo Hilary Scott.
Daniel Cohen leading the TMCO and violinist Sarah Silver in Mackey’s Beautiful Passing. Photo Hilary Scott.

The Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music at Ozawa Hall:
Thursday July 17 at 8 pm―Chamber works by James Matheson, Anna Weesner, Seung-Ah Oh, Jacob Druckman, Fred Lerdahl, and John Harbison
Saturday July 19 at 2:30 pm―Chamber works by George Perle, Keeril Makan, Hannah Lash, David Dzuby, Eric Nathan, and Anthony Cheung
Sunday July 20 at 10 am―Chamber and chamber orchestra works by Martin Boykan, Menjamin Scheuer, Michael Gandolfi, and Bernard Rands
Sunday July 20 at 8 pm: Vocal chamber works by Kate Soper and Andrew Waggoner
Monday July 21 at 8 pm: Orchestral works by Roger Sessions, Steven Mackey, Charlotte Bray, and John Adams

In the Twenty-First Century, a festival of contemporary music needs a point of focus. A broad or representative survey is impossible; there are simply too many wildly varied approaches to music-making out there than can be sampled even in a festival twice as long as the six-concert event this summer at Tanglewood. By choosing composers who have been fellows there, the organizers John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi offered a musical profile that was primarily American and tended toward the conservative side, especially compared to past festivals which a greater representation of new European music. Also shown was the arc of American musical thinking over about four generations.

The oldest layer of style was evident in works by Roger Sessions (not a Tanglewood fellow but included by virtue of his close working relationship with the BSO) along with George Perle (also not, but with an approaching centennial), Martin Boykan and Jacob Druckman. Surviving the winnowing process of time, the works of these composers all made strong impressions; I was grateful to have heard them. Three out of four exemplified the astringent and system-based approach to musical language which has been labeled as “uptown style.” Sessions and Perle both made use of a serially-based language; the former’s Concerto for Orchestra showed the aesthetic and technical influence of Schoenberg (a positive one) while the latter’s Six Etudes (fluently rendered, from memory, by Catherine Dowling) exemplify its composer’s conflation of tonality and serialism that he labeled “Twelve-Tone Tonality.” Druckman’s Bo may not be serial but it speaks an uncompromisingly astringent harmonic language in the service of a pervading sense of mystic ritual animated by the highly nuanced, infinitely resourceful control of tone color characteristic of this composer. Martin Boykan’s As Once on a Deserted Street… (20100) blurs the generational pattern. A Tanglewood Fellow of 1949-50, Boykan’s work has been associated with the strict serialism of the ‘60’s but as with Perle, his application of serial techniques has been very personal and flexible; the current work turns out not to be serial at all. Despite the opinion on some quarters that serial style is a discarded artifact of the past, these works were all in some significant way influenced by serialism; they all possessed individual forms of lyricism and distinctive personalities, clear emotional profiles, structural strength and clarity, and expressive power.

Composer John Harbison
Composer John Harbison

Transitional figures to the next generation include FCM organizer John Harbison and Fred Lerdahl, both now in their 70’s, represented by early compositions from the late ‘60’s, showing style strongly influenced by the prevailing “uptown” style which they both were to move away from decisively. Neither work left a strong impression; Harbison’s early piano composition Parody Fantasia (1968) suffered from a lack formal clarity (possibly owing to an undercharacterized performance by Catherine Dowling) while Lerdahl’s ambitious setting of an excerpt of “Finnegan’s Wake” (Wake, 1968) shared a text problem with several other works, to be discussed below. Of the same generation but standing completely apart is Bernard Rands, whose brand new Folk Songs (2014) left a different sort of memorable impression, one of artful straightforwardness, of a stylistic gesture that was both traditional and at the same time audacious, personal, and winning. It is unlikely that the audience expected to hear anything like it at a contemporary music festival. Both Rands and Boykan demonstrated that, though in their 80’s, resourceful composers can continue to move with the times.

Composer Michael Gandolfi
Composer Michael Gandolfi

Composers representing the middle generation, now in their late 40’s to 60’s included David Dzubay, Andrew Waggoner, Anna Weesner, Michael Gandolfi, Steven Mackey, and John Adams, the latter included by a happy error. This group’s work can be characterized as highly accessible, extroverted and dramatic, and, predominantly tonal. Dzubay offered a sonorously enticing “Astral” String Quartet (2008) given a spectacular performance by the New Fromm Players string players. The five movements have programmatic links (titles and compositional procedures relating to the topic of the starry sky) but the work stood on its own with a strongly defined arc of energy and drama, showing strong contrasts of mood and sonority across its five sections. Anna Weesner contributed Mother Tongues (2006), an ingenious setting of four modern haiku by Sonya Sanchez that offer compressed expressions of romantic passion rather than of nature contemplated, as in the classical form. Weesner’s setting for soprano, clarinet, string trio, and piano matched the passionate intensity of the text with a wide range of emotions from motionless contemplation to bluesy riffs, agitated ostinato, and complex, impassioned textures. The words were set with great care and comprehensible even without the printed text. Weesner used imaginative strategies such as repeating an entire verse with different music or shuffling together two different verses to allow the listener to ponder the words and their complex resonances, in contrast to other word-settings heard in the festival (see below).

Co-director Michael Gandolfi contributed As Above (2005), a work with a complex genesis in a multi-media project. Heard without the accompanying video, it came across as a polished large-ensemble piece in a neo-minimalist style that offered a pleasant and well-structured quarter-hour of listening, but that left little residue. Of much greater impact were two pieces included in the final concert performed by the TMC Orchestra. Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing (2008) which merged tone poem and violin concerto and may have been the most heart-felt and memorable work of the entire festival, especially as performed here by violin soloist Sarah Silver. The work is a tribute to the composer’s mother, portraying her “passing” as a consciously chosen and designed act. Beginning as a concerto “against” the orchestra representing worldly life, the calm lyricism of the violin eventually enlists the accompanying body to celebrate the life of the spirit. There are moments reminiscent of the Barber Violin Concerto, but evolved through a structured interaction that avoids all hint of self-indulgence. The scoring is continually resourceful, especially in the percussion section, and the active orchestra constantly divulges engaging new textures without obscuring the work’s through-line. Along with the Boykan and Rands, this work constituted a high-point of the festival in which the entire audience seemed to be continuously focused as one on a lucid, dramatic scenario, and it responded with great warmth.

The other piece performed on the same program as the Mackey and included partly owing to that misunderstanding mentioned earlier, was Slonimsky’s Earbox (1996) by John Adams, a work that has already established itself in the repertory. It served as a rousing conclusion to the festival, with enormous energy and visceral appeal that required no program notes or text deciphering―it reached out and grabbed the listener by the throat with kaleidoscopic color, earthy and driving rhythms, and clear dramatic shape. The connection to Slonimsky involved that writer’s classic Thesaurus of Musical Scales, beloved of musicians for generations. Using scales of any sort as the thematic material for a composition guarantees legibility to first-time listeners; adding references to (actually, enhanced borrowings from) Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale raised the dazzle factor to a higher degree. Program notes indicated that the work was pivotal for the composer, moving as it does away from the more stringent limitations of minimalism. Although it was not heart-stirring in the way of Mackey’s piece, it was stirring nonetheless, perhaps aiming at other parts of the anatomy.

Which brings us to the younger generation of composers represented. Their works presented no consistent stylistic profile, but neither did they spread themselves out along a wide continuum. The works that proved most memorable do not fall into a single stylistic category, although some “avant-garde” techniques attracted notice, if not admiration. Rather, the impression I received was of a range of qualitative values, from pedestrian, to novel and momentarily interesting, to difficult, provocative, and meaningful. Clarity of design and intention proved significant in holding attention and attracting admiration. In the first category Hannah Lash’s Friction, Pressure, Impact and Anthony Cheung’s Roundabouts, both imaginative ideas for pieces whose realization proved disappointing. Unusual sonorities and playing techniques characterized Benjamin Scheuer’s Voices, Eric Nathan’s Toying, and Keeril Makan’s 2. Each was built around some new sounds either by using instruments in novel ways such as altering the physical structure of the instrument, in Nathan’s case, the trumpet; or by introducing new sound-makers, as in Scheuer’s raucous use of slide whistles, deflating balloons, toy ratchets, hand-cranked little music boxes, and electronically generated babbling voices; or simply by finding unfamiliar sounds in familiar instruments through new combinations, like striking chimes that are laid out horizontally and played with wooden mallets while simultaneously having a violin play harsh downbow double-stops, in the opening of Makan’s piece.

With less obvious novelty but more clearly conveyed expressive purpose, James Matheson’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, succeeded in drawing sustained attention as the opening work of the festival. Its loose variation structure was easy to discover, and its textures were open, lucid, and clearly connected to the development of the material which was put forth in the “theme” section through clear, simple textures and eloquently evolving thematic materials. As in the Adams, the basic material was scalar, this time primarily descending (one way of expressing melancholy); and the mood was surprisingly varied (given the subject matter) with contrasting dynamics and energy levels in different sections. The work was coherent and its expressive gestures added up to a satisfying emotional statement.

A performance of Helen Enfettered by Kate Soper at the Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo Hilary Scott.
A performance of Helen Enfettered by Kate Soper at the Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo Hilary Scott.
Composer Kate Soper
Composer Kate Soper

Even more affecting, and not only because of its larger means and scope, was Kate Soper’s Helen Enfettered. Perhaps the most original conception in the festival, it occupied half the Saturday night program, using a 8-piece chamber ensemble (four strings, clarinet, trumpet, percussion, and piano) to back up a Doppelgänger of a vocal component, two sopranos (theatrically matched in voice, figure and costume) representing the inner and outer aspects of the mythological title character. It is based on a strange text drawn from Eunoia by Canadian poet Christian Bök that conflates myth with modern psychology and (in my reading) gender politics. Bök restricts himself to words that contain only one vowel, the letter “e”, and the result is a series of haunting and disturbing paragraphs all beginning with the words “Whenever Helen… .” Each goes on to explore a different aspect of her behavior and her being, becoming more extreme and highly contrasting. The musical materials maintained a high level of both pitch (the singers staying close to the top of their ranges) and continuity (the continuous flow of sound worked effectively with all those “e’s”); and the varied colors and harmonies of the instruments echoed the wide mood swings of singers, who continuously echoed each other. To sum up: for me the effect was akin to the poetry of Sylvia Plath or the philosophy of Simone De Beauvoir in its portrait of a woman trapped in her own image, aware of her archetypal role as defined by the men around her who either lust after her, admire her as an object, or worship her as a magic being, but who fail to grant her the normal needs and aspirations of a human being. First impressions that I overheard tended to find the first few sections strange and harsh but the rest growing more dramatic and sympathetic as the protagonist(s) struggle to find her (their) true voice. It was clear to me that the work had a powerful arc and that being disturbed was an essential component of the experience.

There was one problem that Soper’s work shared with Wake and …This Powerful Rhyme (Andrew Waggoner’s Shakespeare settings): all three had lengthy and mostly non-repetitive texts that flowed by mostly at a rapid rate. Since all three were rich in musical incident, there was little time or space allowed to contemplate the meanings of words that were not originally meant to be sung. Such language seems best understood through reading which permits pauses to contemplate multiple layers, metaphors and similes, philosophically dense ideas, and even the well-used ambiguities of language (in Joyce’s case, languages). For me, an ideal setting of Finnegan’s Wake is to be found in John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, in which the singer quietly chants the words on two or three notes while occasionally tapping on a piano lid–the words take up so much mental space that the music has to get out of the way, in fact making room for the music that is intrinsic to Joyce’s use of language. In Lerdahl’s wildly maximalist setting, one’s eyes had to remain glued to the text sheet and even then, many of Joyce’s layers of meaning went by too fast to be acknowledged. By the way, the singer for this performance, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, did an eerie job of channeling the soprano who recorded this when it was new, Bethany Beardslee. She had a small, but agile and beautifully focused soprano of exceedingly wide range, uniform timbre, and great flexibility that seemed made for this piece, a remarkable performer who stood out among many other remarkable musicians in this festival. Likewise, Soper’s text would have benefited from more time to absorb phrases like “Whenever Helen sleeps, her essence enters the ether – the deep well, where she feels herself descend deeper, deeper.…” That is much more the case with the nineteen (!) Shakespeare sonnets that formed Waggoner’s text. I kept wishing for pauses so that I could re-read and re-think each poem, but the readers just forged relentlessly ahead in an attempt to stitch it all together into a seamless whole. The result was similar to a body that has just ingested far too much rich food, despite the music’s discretion. An overly loud amplification of the reading voices added to the sense of an imbalance between the elements, and the unsubtle dramatics seemed to mistake these contemplative poems for lines from the Bard’s more histrionic plays.

Karina Canellakis leads the TMCO in Charlotte Bray's At the Speed of Stillness. Photo Hilary Scott.
Karina Canellakis leads the TMCO in Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness. Photo Hilary Scott.

It is impossible to mention all the performers who seemed uniformly excellent, which means almost all of them. Deserving to be singled out was conducting fellow Karina Canellakis, who led Rands’ Folk Songs on Sunday morning and Charlotte Bray’s As the Speed of Stillness (2012) on Monday’s TMC Orchestra Concert. Bray’s work was an interesting study of layered musical energy, inspired by contemplating electrical powerlines. Although less compelling than the best works of the festival, it received a lucid and well-prepared performance. In both works, the conductor’s crisp gestures offered the players a secure framework at the same time that her friendly demeanor offered encouragement for them to play their best. Even more meritorious was the Überdirigent Stefan Asbury who led the Sessions and Adams works in that final concert, as well as others earlier on, eliciting clear and sharply delineated textures in the former and whipping up a controlled frenzy of color and rhythm in the latter. The students in the TMC orchestra respond enthusiastically to his outgoing but efficient style. Asbury has done great work at Tanglewood over the years (one recalls his Mahagonny for which he stepped in for an ailing James Levine) and it is to be hoped that the rest of the country gets a chance to become familiar with his work, particularly in recent music.

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