Music / Contemporary Music

Festival of Contemporary Music, August 10-14, 2017

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Vinay Parameswaran leads Festival of Contemporary Music cocurator Jacob Greenberg and Tanglewood Music Center Fellows in Nathan Davis’s “The Sand Reckoner”. Photo Hilary Scott.
Vinay Parameswaran leads Festival of Contemporary Music cocurator Jacob Greenberg and Tanglewood Music Center Fellows in Nathan Davis’s “The Sand Reckoner”. Photo Hilary Scott.


Thursday, August 10, 8 p.m. Ozawa Hall
Kate Soper, soprano (Lewis)
TMC Fellows
Phyllis Chen – Chimers
György Kurtág – Selected songs
Nathan Davis – The Sand Reckoner (world premiere)
Anthony Cheung – All thorn, but cousin to your rose, for voice and piano (world premiere; TMC commission)
Sofia Gubaidulina – Meditation
George Lewis – Anthem

Friday, August 11, 2:30 p.m. Ozawa Hall
TMC Fellows
New Fromm Players
Body – Flurry, for three string quartets
Terry Riley – G Song
Rene Orth – Stripped
Kui Dong – A Night at Tanglewood (world premiere; TMC commission)
Moritz Eggert – Croatoan II
Lei Liang – Gobi Canticle
Ben Johnston – Quartet No. 4, Amazing Grace

Saturday, August 12, 6 p.m. Ozawa Hall
Prelude Concert
TMC Fellows
Caroline Shaw – Blueprint
Amy Williams – Abstracted Art 1 and 2
Julian Anderson – Van Gogh Blue

Sunday, August 13, 10 a.m. Ozawa Hall
TMC Fellows
David Lang – just (after song of songs)
Marcos Balter – Chambers
Thomas Adès Court Studies from The Tempest
Nico Muhly – Clip, for ensemble (world premiere; TMC commission)
Donnacha Dennehy – Surface Tension

Monday, August 14, 8 p.m. Ozawa Hall
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Stefan Asbury, conductor
Vinay Parameswaran (TMC Fellow), conductor
Lorelei Ensemble, Beth Willer, artistic director (Ligeti)
Hadi Lancaric, Aria Frehner, and Jaimini Viles, voices (Dutilleux)
György Ligeti – Clocks and Clouds
Anna Thorvaldsdottir – Hrim
Huang Ruo – Confluence
Dai Fujikura – Tocar y Luchar
Henri Dutilleux – The Shadows of Time

New Friends and Old Masters
Curated programs were a new and determining feature of Tanglewood’s 2017 Festival of Contemporary Music. In three of the five concerts, repertory and performers were chosen by a performer-curator who selected works by composers with whom they had worked extensively.  Each of the curators, pianist Jacob Greenberg, cellist Kathryn Bates, and violist Nadia Sirota had been at Tanglewood (as part of the New Fromm players) and had developed a significant career in playing and promoting new compositions. The result was a concentration of works by composers of varied backgrounds who are living and working in the United States, and of an age that can be described as “mid-career.” Each curator got to choose one work to be included on the final TMC Orchestra concert.

As a balancing element, each program also included music of older masters, including octogenarians György Kurtág, Ben Johnston, and Terry Riley; deceased composer Jack Body was joined by the pantheon-enshrined Sofia Gubaidulina, György Ligeti, and Henri Dutilleux. (The inclusion of such no-longer-contemporary composers is not a novelty; last summer’s festival included a very valuable performance of the even older Lutosławski’s “Chain 1,” affording us a unique opportunity to hear this thirty-four year old gem.) Two older Americans—Bang-on-a-Can godfather David Lang and the boundary-crossing innovator George Lewis—were joined by two somewhat younger but well-established British composers, Julian Anderson and Thomas Adès, both of whose music had been performed earlier in the summer here.

Triadic Harmony
For the newer music on the programs, certain common concerns emerged: one was yet another return to the use of the triad—the chord that will not die—but used in the most varied and creative ways. The opening program, curated by Jacob Greenberg, included All Thorn…, Anthony Cheung’s setting of a text which was essentially a lecture on the hazards of translation by Vladimir Nabokov that consisted of a mostly spoken narrative (intermingled with some Sprechstimme) accompanied by individual tonal-sounding chords and riffs on the piano, skillful and wry commentary on the already ironic text, a work that could have usefully been about half as long. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Meditation on the Bach chorale prelude… for harpsichord and five strings evoked the sound-world and harmonic language of Bach without actually sounding anything like him: it was a fascinating and successful example of exactly what had been warned against by Cheung-Nabokov: translation.

Triads and tonality appeared more robustly in program 2, curated by Kathryn Bates. The brief and lively opening work Flurry for three string quartets by Jack Body came close to affirming an orthodox G major tonality, while its successor, Terry Riley’s G song for only one quartet moved us gently into G minor for a more extended exploration of materials that showed jazz influence by building its triads into more complex, extended but familiar-sounding harmonies promulgated through minimalist textures. Rene Orth’s Stripped for quartet used an obvious structural trope, moving from “ugly” sounds produced by bows being scraped under maximum pressure to “beautiful” ones produced in the conventional romantic manner, arriving at a climax redolent of Barber’s Adagio for strings. Lei Liang’s duet for violin and cello, Gobi Canticle, used the simple tonal language of open fifth drones to evoke Mongolian pentatonic music, while the “old-masterpiece” that concluded the program, Ben Johnston’s resplendent Quartet no. 4, Amazing Grace, presented tonality in purified form using “natural” harmonic intervals in a G major tonality. Arnold Schoenberg considered the development of atonality an episode that would allow music to cleanse itself of the harmonic and associated expressive clichés of romanticism, and predicted that after a period of time, tonality could return in new and fresh forms. This program seemed to validate that prediction.

Program 3 continued the trend with Caroline Shaw’s lovely and engaging Blueprint which began with chorale-like tonal harmonies and built textural complexity (including an effective double duet, bowed and plucked pairs in dialogue) that admitted atonal moments but concluded with an actual perfect cadence (a cliché completely out of context). Allusion to tonal models was explicit in Amy Williams Abstracted Art 1 & 2, a piano duet based on the playing of jazz titan Art Tatum. A very enjoyable work evoking Tatum’s super-human left-hand stride with rhythmic hiccups as well as his lightning-speed right-hand and two-hand runs, it was also a cautionary tale of being overshadowed by the source of influence: no-one can stand comparison to Tatum, or hope to sound like him.1 As a source of inspiration, he would have been best left unnamed; then the piece could have been enjoyed for its own quirky pleasures.

Program 4 began with Lang’s Just (after song of songs), a haunting and hypnotic work originally composed for Trio Medieval, three women’s voices singing in the kind of close triadic harmony characteristic of early polyphony, thirteenth century sacred music in particular. Accompanied by varying patterns of sustained cello tones and quiet percussion, the women’s repetitious chordal patterns set short phrases selected from the biblical poetry to underscore the physical aspects of the metaphorical imagery in this most erotic sacred text. The result was mesmerizing, particularly the singers’ ability to sustain a highly expressive atmosphere with such repetitious material. (They were Mary Bonhag and Fotina Naumenko, sopranos, and Jazimina MacNeil, mezzo-soprano, joined by Matthew Gustafson, cello, and Mark Stein, percussion.) Also on that program was the premier of Nico Muhly’s Clip for flute, clarinet, trumpet, and string trio. This engagingly lively work, moving in rapid steady pulsations, uses a triadic harmonic vocabulary that modulates through nine different tonal areas, a process analogous to but very different-sounding from classical tonal harmonic structure.

While the TMC’s program 5 proved the crowning event in the festival, it is slightly ironic that its bookends by two old masters, Ligeti and Dutilleux, provided the most sustained sense of non-tonal adventure, despite the latter’s roots in post-Ravel tonality. Two other compositions on that program that evoked the past more clearly: Huang Ruo’s witty dialectic confrontation of opposing gestures, Confluence (subtitled “Concerto no. 4 for fifteen players”) included in its third section what seemed a deliberate quote from Petrushka to complement a host of other influences, most notably Chinese opera. Dai Fujikura’s orchestral tour-de-force Tocar y Luchar began with a moment of the lush string sounds of commercial arrangements or a Hollywood sound-track in a score that made masterful use of the large ensemble to present a panorama of orchestral colors and textures. The programmers (no curator was assigned to this event) might have been wary of placing this work next to the equally colorful but very different Dutilleux score The shadows of time which concluded the festival in a brilliant and profound way; but they calculated accurately that these scores would complement rather than duplicate each other.

Nathan Davis and Kui DongNathan Davis and Kui Dong

Whispers and Cries
Some of the most striking works in the Festival inhabited the very quiet end of the dynamic spectrum for much of their duration. Such works (like the oeuvre of old master George Crumb) evoke mysterious voids of macro- and microcosmic physical spaces along with moments of psychological angst and/or spiritual transport.  Three such works attracted attention by existing on the margin of audibility. Nathan Davis’s imaginative The Sand Reckoner (program 1) set another unusual text (cf. Cheung-Nabokov) composed primarily of Archimedes’ dry, repetitive, but conceptually fascinating meditation on large numbers, interspersed with  snippets of the Wycliffe Bible and William Blake, and set for six voices and celeste. The miked voices produced a wide range of vocal sound effects, much of it suggesting shifting or sifting sand, as Archimedes tries to conceptualize the number of grains on earth, or stars in the heavens, for which the celeste offers the appropriate complement. Like the Cheung and Lang pieces, it is the choice and structuring of text that offers the composer a spring-board for a thoroughly original conception; of the three, I found this the most original and ingenious. It was followed in program 2 by the premier of Kui Dong’s noncommittally titled A Night at Tanglewood for 21 glasses and glass bowls, home-made music boxes, and string quartet, a work which remained in the domains of pianississimo dynamics and the altissimo register for its entire duration. It begins with three players stroking the glassware to produce a closely-spaced cluster while the cellist drones on a harmonic so high that it is almost indistinguishable from the other sounds. In the course of the piece, which offers no significant contrasts, but builds to a climactic moment involving the subtle addition of the music boxes, the glass-players tiptoe one at a time across the stage to their more conventional instruments and proceed to join the cello in high harmonics until the string quartet is complete. Shortly afterwards, the cellist moves in the reverse direction, ending up at the glasses to conclude the work. It retained interest throughout its seamless and literally mesmerizing2 duration, partly owing to the theatrical element provided by players stealing across the stage from one instrument to another.

Marcos Balter’s Chambers for amplified string quartet, heard on program 4, proposes to represent three different acoustic spaces, appropriately generating marginal sonorities suggesting varieties of resonant silence. In the first section, the players once again inhabit the highest registers of harmonics, accompanied by whistling in unison with their notes. The imagery suggested to me a natural habitat, perhaps like the world of bird-song conjured up earlier in the summer by Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Messaien performances. Balter’s second section consisted of quiet plucking and bowing on the bridge, with slight swellings interspersed. His third section finally developed a somewhat more robust sonority with fuller textures including augmented triads joining or growing out of the plucks and scrapes of the previous sections. Balter’s note to the score indicates a threefold homage to admired composers G. F. Haas, Beat Furrer, and Alfred Schnittke, along with an “oblique reference” to Alvin Lucier. What this means to the listener is opaque; from my experience of Haas and Schnittke’s very different, very intense scores, such indication of influence invites comparisons which, as in the case of Rene Orth’s piece, do not necessarily work in favor of the piece in question. To those familiar with the sources, the comparisons ought to suggest themselves, as they do, for example, in Beethoven’s C minor Concerto which may be heard as an homage to Mozart’s concerto in the same key, K. 491. To those unfamiliar, it may induce a resentment at being left out of a conversation among the insiders, or a suspicion of trying to ride on someone else’s shoulders. In the company of so many brilliant and skillful scores in the Festival, Chambers occupied a modest role as a well-crafted and intriguing but ultimately unmemorable work.

A final entry into the “quiet” sweepstakes would be Donnacha Dennehy’s Surface Tension for four percussion players. Not as quiet as the others mentioned, it maintained a steady thrumming pulse with carefully crafted membrane-generated pitches, including the novelty of air-tubes that could be blown into to raise the pitch produced by the drum-head. The membranophones were joined by pitched lignophone, a marimba played by one or two musicians both conventionally and bowed producing as many as four sustained pitches at a time. The work achieved the paradoxical effect of long, sustained, and gradually morphing sonorities overcoming the conventional use of percussion as punctuation. As fascinating as the means and sounds were, the work seemed to go on a bit too long; or perhaps coming at the end of the fourth program, listener fatigue was starting to set in. (If you are experiencing reader fatigue at this point, please hang in there; the end is in sight.)

On the other hand, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrim for orchestra is both slight of sound and brief in duration. A study in tone-colors heard on the quiet end of the spectrum, it compels attentive listening and offers much to hear; the sounds are crafted to be indefinite, unfamiliar, unexpected, and unpredictable with a core of lyric melody acting as a kind of center that emerges and vanishes throughout. Although full of exquisite moments, its more spectacular companion pieces on the final TMC program blew it away. I think it would have made its best effect if heard before intermission, where its impact could be more gradually absorbed without new sounds interfering. Another programming disadvantage was that it followed György Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds, a more robust and substantial work whose dramatic profile projects clearly and movingly over its fourteen minute (plus) duration. I include its mention in this section because for much of its length it is quiet, but never wispy. It has a continuous structure with no articulatory breaks; instead the sonorities flow and morph, including the sounds of a 12-voice choir singing in wordless vocalise. Its structure is a less rigorous version of the first movement of the composer’s Cello Concerto which is roughly contemporaneous with it; both begin with narrowly focused mid-register pitches that start to expand in a wedge, ending with a wide-spread and diffuse-sounding cluster harmony, and both stick to the quieter region of the dynamic spectrum. The performance of this challenging and intricately balanced work was virtuosic under Stefan Asbury’s direction.

Paintings, a Story, and Meditations on Time and Innocence
Multi-movement works by three established figures made lasting impressions at the Festival. Julian Anderson had contributed a piano solo to Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s July 27 recital, a piece designed to fit with the central focus there on Messiaen. His Van Gogh Blue (2015) for chamber ensemble of flute, multiple clarinets, harp, piano and low strings offered musical counterparts to five paintings. The strongly characterized sonorities and clear contrasts among the five sections, each titled after a single painting, offered a well-balanced suite that seemed to reflect the individuality of each image. The eight performers were deployed in varied configurations, giving the impression of a much larger group. Attention was directed to the color and character of each section rather than to its internal musical processes. The composer resourcefully created a separate sound-world, similar to the selection of a color palate, for each painting; these proved complementary, especially in the deployment of two mobile clarinets who positioned themselves in varied configurations on- and off-stage. Anderson’s implied portrait of the painter eschews the view that he was unhinged and hallucinatory, and instead acts an hommage to his lucidly perceptive poetic eye. The use of varied tone-colors and delicate instrumental combinations, often with Klangfarben textures, sustained an atmosphere that achieved a sense of harmony and poetry within its own musical language.

Thomas Adès’s Court Studies from The Tempest (2005) is based on his eponymous opera, excerpted and rescored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. While timbrally resourceful within the restrictions of the small ensemble, the focus here was on mood and dramatic contrasts. Shakespeare’s play is often thought of in terms of its magical elements as a kind successor to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ariel~Puck), but Adès opts here to focus on the intrigue-filled courts of Naples and Milan with their King and Duke who furnish background to the doings on the magic island. Much of the music has a somber gravity that would be suitable for Hamlet and its livelier sections have an ironic edge. The music language is a cubistically reformed tonality occasionally reminiscent of Stravinsky but with an immediate dramatic impact that seems specific to Adès himself.

Henri Dutilleux
Henri Dutilleux

The third multi-part work, chosen to conclude the festival and the TMC concert, was Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time for full orchestra from 1997, a work divided into five episodes.  The second episode, “Malevolent Ariel” mirrors Adès’s dark view of The Tempest but puts it into a context that celebrates innocence and mourns its loss. This comes to the forefront in the central section, “Mémoire des ombres,” dedicated to Anne Frank, using three children’s voices (the Lorelei Ensemble) to intone the text “Why us? Why the star?” (which has gained unintended new resonance in the days since this performance). With motives of clock, waves, and chanting, the final movement “Dominante bleue?” rounds out a deeply felt meditation that exposes the complexity and multifaceted nature of its theme, including its unanswered or unanswerable questions, with the full resources of a post-impressionist orchestral palette and the wisdom of its then 83-year-old composer who was to continue composing for the next fourteen years. With such music, the distinction between past and present blurs, and the confines of “the contemporary” are dissolved.

Standing Alone
Final mention must be made of a work outside the categories into which this review is divided, George Lewis’s Anthem (2011-12). Standing stylistically by itself in the festival on the boundaries between “contemporary music,” “progressive jazz,” “electronic-computer music,” and “unclassifiable,” Lewis devised a rhetorical text through an elaborate process that also determined critical aspects of the instrumental score; the vocal part, influenced in part by James Brown, was brilliantly rendered by Kate Soper and served as a trenchant take-down of the egotism, materialism, and neediness of contemporary mass-media culture and, perhaps less intentionally, of politics (art once again anticipating life). Lewis’ process of text generation interestingly parallels the ones employed by David Lang and Nathan Davis—a trend of composers taking the primary role in shaping their verbal texts? The unpleasant persona of the text did not provide a repellant experience; on the contrary, Lewis’s teeming, protean and dramatic score proved continuously engaging, surprising, funny, scintillating, rich in its complexity but inviting in its surface and its depths. It managed to convey a sense of intricately thought-out structure and improvisatory freedom. Like the Dutilleux, Lewis’s composition braided together many strands of the musical and cultural past to form an utterly fresh-sounding music that happily evades classification.

George Lewis
George Lewis
  1. Every jazz fan knows that when Fats Waller played Carnegie Hall, he discovered that Tatum was in the audience, and announced from the stage “God is in the house.”
  2. Franz Anton Mesmer was a Viennese physician treating mental disturbances and friend of Mozart’s who developed the theory of animal magnetism (parodied in Così fan tutte). He often concluded his treatments by playing some music on a glass harmonica. Gielen, Uwe; Raymond, Jeannette (2015). “The curious birth of psychological healing in the Western World (1775-1825): From Gaβner to Mesmer to Puységur.”. In Rich, Grant; Gielen, Uwe. Pathfinders in international psychology. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. pp. 25–51, esp. pp. 32f.
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