Berkshire Review / Music

Tanglewood in Wonderland: The 2015 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music

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Jonathan Berman Conducts, Photo © Hilary Scott

This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding, by legendary BSO Music Director Serge Koussevitzky, of the Tanglewood Music Center, one of the great arts educational projects in this country and still going strong. Curated by composers and Tanglewood gurus John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, and Oliver Knussen (who couldn’t attend or conduct as scheduled because of a visa problem), it was on the whole one of the livelier festivals—more focused if not quite as eclectic.

The focus was on the TMC and its faculty and former students. Some fifteen new commissions joined pieces by composers who’ve been directly involved with Tanglewood, either as teachers or students.

Because of its peculiar calendar of events (a Monday concert followed by concerts from Thursday evening through Sunday morning, then one additional concert on Monday night), I missed the first FCM program and couldn’t stay for the final one. Some of us just don’t have infinitely flexible schedules.

Still, I came away with a healthy list of favorite events and performances. In several ways, the Thursday evening concert was the most coherent and up until the end the most satisfying. It was originally meant to be a tribute rather than a memorial to Gunther Schuller, who was going to conduct his latest commission, Magical Trumpets. Sadly, this feisty former director of the TMC and the president of the New England Conservatory who shook up that august institution by inaugurating a “third stream” combining jazz and classical music, died in June, at the age of 89.

I think he would have loved the performance of his new work, with BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs joining colleagues from the BSO (including principal trombonist Toby Oft on bass trumpet), guest artists, and Tanglewood fellows for a romp with twelve trumpets in eight different sizes and keys, beginning with an ear-piercing blast and continuing through moody blues, folk song, and an exuberant Wagnerian Ho-jo-to-ho fanfare.

The new Schuller, which began the concert, plus an earlier Schuller Concertino da camera (1971), with its mysterious jungle noises, and composer/conductor Bruno Maderna’s haunting 12-tone Serenata No. 2 (1954/57) were all scheduled to be led by Knussen, but Knussen’s assistant, Jonathan Berman, a rising star in Europe and a 2012 Tanglewood conducting fellow, became one of the festival’s heroes by conducting, at short notice, this entire program—one of the pieces at such short notice it didn’t have a single rehearsal.

That difficult work was scheduled to be conducted by FCM regular Stefan Asbury, who prematurely became a new father just after the festival’s first concert. The piece was one of Elliott Carter’s last song cycles, A Sunbeam’s Architecture, a setting of six poems by e.e. cummings (“our famous man of little letters,” as Elizabeth Bishop once called him), which had its premiere in New York in 2010, at a concert celebrating Carter’s 103rd birthday. These love poems (“your little voice / over the wires came leaping”) and war poems (in which the poet will “solve the depths of horror to defend/a sunbeam’s architecture with his life” and dream of “Your smile/eyes knees and of your Etcetera”), like all of Carter’s settings of poetry, take on an intensely personal dimension. Unfortunately, tenor Nicholas Phan, another rising star, sounded forced and stentorian, pushing so hard he thoroughly missed what Berman and the chamber orchestra captured so beautifully—the mercurial tenderness and wit of Carter’s endlessly morphing small ensembles, and the teasing and serious interplay of cummings’s words.

Another high point of that concert was the superb New Fromm Players in the late George Perle’s Critical Moments (1996), six delicious and sophisticated very short pieces for “Pierrot” ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—the instrumentation of Schoenberg’s landmark Pierrot Lunaire) plus percussion. By turns wittily syncopated, lyrical, stealthy, antic, delicately mysterious, and jumpy, these were among the few FCM selections you wanted to hear more of. Three days later, you got your wish, with the New Fromm Players in Perle’s more acerbic and nervous nine-movement Critical Moments 2 (2001).

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the big Wuorinen piece for piano (Peter Serkin) and orchestra that closed the Schuller memorial concert. But despite the enthusiasm of James Levine for Wuorinen, I’ve seldom found in his work the satisfactions I crave from music. Megalith seemed much too long, too inchoate, and too loud (beginning with super-fortissimo drum beats). Some of it was meant to sound improvisatory, but I couldn’t follow it (and it didn’t make me want to). Some of it was inspired by a particular kind of Indian raga (Raga Lalit), but I couldn’t distinguish it. And I was disappointed with Serkin, who performed the premiere in April with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (this was a co-commission), and who seemed almost willfully heavy handed. Brass players on opposite sides of the Ozawa Hall balcony seemed more arbitrary than inevitable. Megalith got relatively positive reviews in the Globe (“challenging”) and the Times (“colorful”), but no one I spoke to afterwards seemed happy with it.

Among the eighteen other pieces on the four other programs I heard, several of the most ambitious, exciting, and/or delightful of them were vocal. One of them seemed stuck in the middle of an odd “prelude” to a BSO concert. It was listed in the FCM program book, though it included no other contemporary pieces (a Tanglewood fellow singing sophisticated Duparc songs—prematurely—and a late Brahms sextet I didn’t stay to hear), and although we were directed to find more information in the BSO program book, it wasn’t actually listed.

Yehudi Wyner in his Workspace. Photo Michael Miller 2010.
Yehudi Wyner in his Workspace. Photo Michael Miller 2010.

But the piece was a miracle—Yehudi Wyner’s Sonnet: In the Arms of Sleep, the 86-year-old composer’s setting of a poem Elizabeth Bishop wrote when she was a precocious 17-year-old high school student. In her “Sonnet,” the ambitious young poet, infatuated with the alliterative verse of Gerard Manly Hopkins, yearns for music. She prays for it to “flow/Over my fretful, feeling, fingertips.” “I am in need,” the poem begins, and Wyner insistently repeats this phrase. And in his inspired repetitions of  young Bishop’s lines and phrases, as his own title—In the Arms of Sleep—now suggests, he turns the young poet’s wish for future music into a retrospective gaze over a whole life of making music. “Oh, for the healing…. Of some song sung to rest the tired dead…” “There is a magic” (sung achingly slowly). “A spell of rest, and quiet breath….” In an act of deep imagination, Wyner transforms the artifice of Bishop’s poem into something completely new and personal—maybe even more urgently personal than the poem was to Bishop.

The song was written for veteran new-music soprano and longtime TMC teacher Lucy Shelton, who was joined by two mezzo-sopranos, vocal fellows Paulina Villareal and Quinn Middleman, who echoed her own singing—everything amplified in turn by the haunting harmonies of strings, winds, and harp (Christian Reif conducting). Shelton’s expressiveness crystalized Wyner’s vision. This new work was the most moving in the entire festival.

Michael Gandolfi’s enchanting new piece, Carroll in Numberland, was another huge success. With a handful of commissions, Gandolfi is one of the BSO’s most popular living composers. But his often complex intellectual ambitions sometimes get in the way of his musical accomplishment, as if ia complex idea with a colorful musical accompaniment is enough. But Carroll in Numberland seems the piece he was born to write, in which Lewis Carroll’s mathematical experiments and fanciful poems play directly into Gandolfi’s sense of musical fantasy. In his setting of Carroll’s “A Square Poem,” Gandolfi subtly imbeds one of Gunther Schuller’s favorite tone rows as a tribute to the late composer. With soprano Dawn Upshaw, in marvelous form as the lead singer, and three vocal fellows (sopranos Nola Richardson and Alison Wahl, and mezzo Zoe Band) as the groovy backup Vandellas to her Martha (although more like the Chordettes in timbre), their obvious enjoyment of what and how they were singing was utterly infectious. Gandolfi said he might be doing more Lewis Carroll. I hope so.

I also enjoyed the opening piece on that program by Andy Vores, chair of composition at Boston Conservatory and in 1986 one of Gandolfi’s TMC compositon fellow classmates. Fabrication 15: Amplification(2013) centers on Vores’s memory of hearing someone play Scott Joplin’s Peacherine Rag “fantastically slowly,” and his stretched chords and hesitations elongate it even further. I knew I was going to like the piece when, before it started, I caught a broad smile on pianist Andrew Hsu’s face. There isn’t a lot of smiling at most contemporary music concerts.

That concert also included one of the most sheerly gorgeous audio experiences of the entire festival: August Read Thomas’s mysteriously titled Selene—Moon Chariot Rituals (Selene is the moon’s charioteer), another commission. Scored for the interplay of string quartet and percussion quartet, in which, for example, tapping bows imitate the percussion, and a percussionist runs a bow down the side of a marimba, its radical changes of pace reflect Thomas’s wish that “this music should be performed with dancers when possible.” Without dancers, Selene seemed to have a few too many alternations and to be in need of a little pruning (an inexperienced conductor may have been a factor here).

Excessive length was a more serious problem in pieces by respected contemporary masters such as Bright Sheng (though George Nixson’s spectacular marimba playing stole the show), Stephen Mackey, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. A British composer best known for his inventive instruments, Oscar Bettison confessed that his commissioned String Quartet  was all about his 14-month-old daughter, but the piece went on and on and seemed to be about to conclude too many times. Marti Epstein’s relatively brief English horn quartet (despite BSO virtuoso Robert Sheena) also seemed too repetitious and too long. James Primosch’s Dark the Star, setting poems by Rilke and Susan Stewart, and passages from Psalm 116, rather divided the people I spoke to. Someone called it melting caramel, others found it plushly romantic, and almost everyone agreed that  it was too long for Primosch to repeat the title poem at the end. The excellent young singers were baritone Dimitri Katotakis and bass-baritone Davone Tines (who won enthusiastic reviews as the runaway slave in Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing).

On the other hand, Hans Werner Henze’s brief but evocative 1993 piano trio Adagio Adagio (eloquently played by pianist Stephen Drury with Robyn Quinnett and Sonia Mantell on strings), a study for his magnificent Eighth Symphony, which was based on scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sounded as rich as Brahms, and didn’t outstay its welcome.

Nor did the dark dream world of Knussen’s Two Organa, Opus 27 (1995), with Berman again brilliantly stepping in at the last minute for Asbury. Nor, on the same program, did the marvelous year-old String Quartet No. 2 by the American spectralist Julian Anderson. Subtitled 300 Weinachtslieder (“300 Christmas Carols”), its seven short movements incorporate quotations from mostly unrecognizable post-Reformation carols. “Spectralism” is a technique developed in France that concentrates on timbre not so much over but as content. So Anderson’s pizzicatos suggest the sound of bells. One of his most alluring gestures is “vertical bowing”—running the bow up and down (rather than across) the strings for a truly spectral effect, heightened by a passage in which the players tap their strings with pencils instead of bows!

Two new commissions that made a particularly effective sequence were by Israeli-born Pulitzer Prize-winner Shulamit Ran, who was TMC’s 2008 composer in residence, and Scottish-born Helen Grime, who was a Tanglewood composition fellow that very year.  Grime’s Embrace, for clarinet (Somin Lee) and trumpet (Austin Williams), interwove those two instruments in seductively contrasting ways, with a languorous slow section and a quietly emotional ending that was almost the equivalent of taps. The players, excellent as they were, must have been so nervous they forgot the concert etiquette, especially for a world premiere, of acknowledging the composer (ultimately remedied). Ran’s Birkat Haderekh (Blessing for the Road”), was a refined lament or prayer for a quartet of clarinet (guest artist Raymond Samtos), violin and cello (BSO’s Wendy Putnam and Mickey Katz), and piano (the extraordinary Ursula Oppens). Ran’s spun-out clarinet melismas worked perfectly against Grime’s jazzier noodling.

John Harbison led a dazzling performance of the great Italian modernist Luigi Dallapiccola’s 1956 Concerto per la note di Natale dell’anno, a masterpiece of delicate instrumentation interleaved with two vocal hymns to Laudi by the 13th-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi. But Sarah Rigden, an efficient young soprano, seemed not to understand the ecstatic nature of her high-lying words of praise (“Gloria,” “Amore”)—surprising since in the program booklet she is credited with the translation. Sarah Tuttle, a more expressive and emotionally open singer—in fact, the most knowing of all the TMC vocal fellows—really “got” the complex ironies behind the words in Harbison’s brilliant new addition to his settings of American poetry, Seven Poems of Lorine Neidecker (“Ah, your face / but it’s whether / you can keep me warm”). Oppens was her scintillating high-end accompanist.

Thomas Rolfs, Photo © Michael J. Lutch.
Thomas Rolfs, Photo © Michael J. Lutch.

I was sorry to miss the very last FCM program, which featured Michael Tilson Thomas and a couple of conducting fellows leading the TMC Orchestra in a program of Bernstein, Copland, and Ives. Reports were ecstatic. But at least I got to hear, following an affectless BSO performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 with Emanuel Ax, MTT conducting a consistently compelling, nuanced and dramatic performance of the Mahler Fifth Symphony.

Starting with principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs and associate principal horn Richard Sebring, both in spectacular form, MTT brought Mahler’s world to life, his tormented nightmares and joyous memories of country and city life, with a rare lightness of being. Teasing. Soulful. Uproarious. The second movement tango was a seductive dance of death. The famous Adagietto, Mahler’s most intimate love song, had a calm, almost floating rapture. You could hear clear echoes of Wagner’s Tristan. And the Finale was veritably spritely. At the end, MTT was waving his baton at the players in pleasure and gratitude. They had nailed it. So had he.

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