Contemporary Music

Contemporary Music Old and New: Out-takes from the Festival of Contemporary Music, 2018

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Thomas Adès, Curator of the 2018 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo Hilary Scott.
Thomas Adès, Curator of the 2018 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo Hilary Scott.

The time-frame of “contemporary music” keeps expanding.  “Modern music” was a term (and the name of an American music magazine) current from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, but is still used to refer to music from the 1890’s on.  After the war, we have the beginnings of “contemporary music” with Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen, the Darmstadt composers and the Cage followers who were busy decrying “modern music” as passé.  Since the late sixties when twelve-tone music was periodically declared a dead-end in the pages of the Sunday New York Times and elsewhere, we have had “post-modern” music, which includes “new romanticism.”  Tanglewood has had a “Contemporary Music” festival since 1961, so we can safely say that the “contemporary” era is at least 57 years old. Several composers who were starting out then are still active and productive: some new octogenarians include Joan Tower, Charles Wuorinen, Frederic Rzewski, and John Corigliano.  Add to the list of elders Harrison Birtwistle, Per Nørgård, and György Kurtág, all represented in this year’s festival.  Many others active in 1961 are gone.  (That would include Americans Copland, Piston, Schuman, Cage, Feldman, Babbitt, Crumb, and even Carter, who continued to be productive to age 103.1

This  year’s Festival, curated by Thomas Adès, reached back into the earlier days of contemporary music to present works that certainly need to be heard, by composers long past or recently deceased.  The list includes Witold Lutosławski (d. 1994), Conlan Nancarrow (d. 1997), Niccolò Castiglioni (d. 1996), Jonathan Harvey (d. 1997), and Oliver Knussen, who passed away early last month.   Such programming offers valuable historical perspective about the sources and longevity of the characteristics of today’s music.  Although we think of new music as in some ways revolutionary (that is, pushing aside tradition and starting with a clean slate), even the most radical-sounding new music has its sources of inspiration, technique, and spirit somewhere in the past.  Adès, who happily acknowledges such inspiration, seems to have wanted to demonstrate this point and to remind us of some of these important voices and their continued relevance.



Gemma New leads sopranos Fotina Naumenko and Mary Bonhag in the Festival of Contemporary Music at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Gemma New leads sopranos Fotina Naumenko and Mary Bonhag in the Festival of Contemporary Music at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

One such voice, Webern’s, assumed a surprising role as inspiration for works by two composers in particular.  One was Castiglioni’s, whose Cantus planus (1990) consists of 24 remarkable miniature works for two sopranos and delicate chamber ensemble setting aphoristic verses by Angelus Silesius, a religious mystic of the 17th century.  Castiglioni credits Webern’s spirituality as a primary influence, and these texts resemble Hildegard Jone’s lyrics for Webern’s own late cantatas.  Here is a sample of Silesius:  “God touches a heart grown mute, tenderly, and lo! It answers him and becomes His lute.”2  Each verse is less than one minute long, and many are just for the two voices, or with one additional instrument.  The spaces of silence around the phrases allow them to resonate in the kind of spiritual space that Webern cultivated, with single note chants or angular lines and with sudden leaps from one registral extreme to the other.  But there is no Webernian stylistic “method” (i.e. 12-tone):  many of the pieces are triadic and tonally free.  The virtuoso vocalists, Fontina Naumenko and Mary Bonhag, with Gemma New  conducting, performed amazing feats of drama and intonation, essential for this totally exposed form of writing.  The results were both pure and intense.

The other “older master” on the program working under Webern’s inspiration was György Kurtág, who also offered a set of miniatures, fifteen in number, for string  quartet.  Once again, it is the late Webern of the cantatas who served as acknowledged source, along with the music of a mentor and colleague.  Kurtág’s Officium Breve in memoriam Endré Szervánsky (1989) explicitly bases three of its sections on Webern’s final work, the sixth movement of Cantata no. 2 (op 31, 1943).  Kurtag’s format requires intense and immediate expression of character in these musical aphorisms. This might involve open intervals and consonant harmonies serenely presented, or intense, crunchy chords juxtaposed with whispered murmurs, along with alternate sonorities of bowing on the bridge or plucking.  As in Castiglioni, unpredictable contrasts between pieces maintain a highly charged atmosphere.  Piece no. 11 is a single tone dynamically fluctuating; piece no. 13 is suddenly a warm “chorale” that disappears into a single tone.  Three of the movements are highly compressed canons, one a direct transcription of Webern.  A sense of a great emptiness is circumscribed by extreme spatial/ registral contrasts.  The work ends with an incomplete cadence.  Castiglioni and Kurtág demonstrate that Webern’s influences are multi-faceted, far beyond his assigned role as high priest of pure dodecaphony.

Per Nørgård and Nancarrow also proved to be early avatars of important current techniques.  Nørgård’s 1968 work for large chamber ensemble, Voyage Into the Golden Screen (1968) made use of techniques and sonorities associated with Spectralism, an approach to composition through the shaping and filtering of simple or complex harmonics.  While not the first to explore this material,3. Nørgård here uses natural overtones, and beats generated by their clashes with tempered pitches, in the context of a timbrally and harmonically rich expressive palette.  There were two contrasting movements—the first a kind of floating harmonic “soup”’ with glissandi, vibrant clusters, tones tuned or mistuned close together to generate beats, and fluctuating timbres with bass instruments adding or subtracting harmonic fundamentals, a “spectral” sound-scape.  In opposition to this, the second movement was rigid both in its contrapuntal and metric aspects.  Each instrument plays the same melody, but at even multiplications or divisions of the rhythmic values, with a trumpet accenting every sixteenth beat where the lines come together.  Nørgård, whose oeuvre is rigorously eclectic, is already incorporating the Spectralist approach into a range of stylistic possibilities.  Would that make him “pre-contemporary?”

Conlon Nancarrow with Player Piano.
Conlon Nancarrow with Player Piano.

The most enthusiastically received avatar was Conlan Nancarrow, whose music sounds like no one else’s. Thursday’s concert concluded with four of his player piano Studies (nos. 2, 3c, 5, and 9) colorfully scored for chamber ensemble by Yvor Mikhashoff.  Nancarrow’s “impossible” rhythmic layers were revealed by the amazingly proficient performers led by Yu An Chang, who had his work cut out finding a way to “keep the beat” among the competing metric relationships.  The selections were relatively “simple” ones for Nancarrow, having lines moving in a beat ratio of 7:5.  (In one of his most complex studies, no. 35, the 5 layers move in a ratio of 20:16.66:12:10:7!  Try figuring out how you would conduct that.)  The task was daunting enough that the ensemble had to stop and restart the second piece; this time they got all the way through, presumably correctly.  While this sounds like an exercise in complexity for its own sake, just the opposite is true:  Nancarrow drew his melodic and pitch material from jazz, appreciating its implied polymetric potential, and pushing it to a more extreme state (one that was also explored by jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor starting in the late ‘50’s).  The aural result is delightful, initially appearing zany and unhinged, but eventually revealing an extreme discipline and orderliness of a unique kind.  

Further Nancarrow was offered on Friday afternoon in the form of two-piano transcriptions by Adès of Studies 6 and 7, the first a languid blues and the second a large-scale, dazzlingly virtuosic tour-de-force for both pianists, Adès and Nathan Ben-Yehuda.  It was great to hear these versions, approaching the sonority of the instrument originally intended (the player-piano) with the excitement of live performance suitable for the concert stage.  I can imagine a future in which more of the studies are similarly arranged, perhaps for three, four, or more pianos.  The rhythmic challenges involved beggar the imagination.



Chi Li performs Francisco Coll's Four Iberian Miniatures under the direction of Thomas Adès at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.26.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Chi Li performs Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures under the direction of Thomas Adès at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.26.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

Transformation of familiar materials and styles was common to a group of works, suggesting a connection to post-modernism.  On the opening program, Francisco Coll’s engaging, mostly light-hearted  “Four Iberian Miniatures,” a kind of violin concerto with chamber orchestra, had fun honoring and mocking recognizable Spanish musical idioms, replete with fandango rhythm, castanets, tambourine, and hand-claps.  The virtuoso solo part was dispatched by Chi Li, with intensity alternating with off-handedness as required.  Scored for chamber orchestra with one-on-a-part strings, the sound-world gravitated to registral extremes, with entertaining utterances from contrabassoon and muted trumpet.  Clearly in E major (the Spanish guitar key), tonality and time were gleefully fractured.  Phrases built up only to collapse, like a balloon suddenly deflating.  The extreme virtuosity required by the solo part actually contributed to its “louche” character—another element of mockery in this seriously entertaining work.

Although the ostensible basis for Veronika Krausas’ “analemma” was a geometric shape inscribed by the sun observed at the same place and time throughout the year (a lop-sided lemniscate), the lyric core of this work for a mixed ensemble of eleven instruments was a Lithuanian lullaby from the “sutartiné” tradition4 which emerged at the end after a metamorphic process.  Beginning with emphasis on an ostinato for piano, marimba, harp, and tom-toms, the music grew steadily brighter and more lyrical, culminating in a simple cello solo.

Scottish folk music and culture inspired “Wake your wild voice” by Judith Weir.  The title comes from a poem by Sir Walter Scott that refers to “pibroch” or Scottish bagpipe music.  This is rendered by Weir as a duet for bassoon and cello, with the wind instrument acting as chanter and the string as drone.  Intended as a merged sound and tour-de-force for the bassoon, the work came off as tame rather than wild; its florid parts stayed mostly in the middle registers, and were played fluently but without apparent strain.  The cello’s open fifths did not acoustically merge with the melody, as would happen on the reeds of an actual bagpipe; the piece was more intriguing as concept than in its realization, at least in the present performance.



Any group of new or recent works is bound to emphasize the melodic dimension, but several pieces this year put a spotlight there.  Chen Yi’s As in a Dream, a set of two songs for soprano, violin, and cello, drew on the idioms of Chinese opera and its instruments.  Setting of Chinese texts (here two poems by Li Qingzhao, 1084-c.1151) necessarily involves adhering to or enlarging the tonal inflections of the language itself, and the preferences for head-voice resonance that pushes the line into higher registers.  The words of the female poet set by the female composer and sung by soprano voice (an impressive Paulina Swierczek) offer two moments of precious emotion recollected and expressed through visual imagery and fragmented vocal phrases.  The understated beauty of the language and imagery is matched by the spare but elegant writing for the strings.

Thomas Adès leads the Festival of Contemporary Music in Gerald Barry's Sextet at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Thomas Adès leads the Festival of Contemporary Music in Gerald Barry’s Sextet at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

Emphasis on melody was built into the scoring of Gerald Barry’s Sextet (1993), for bass clarinet, trumpet, mallet percussion (xylophone, marimba), piano and double bass. This suggests the front and back lines of a jazz combo. The idiom, which was mobile, diatonic and occasionally tonal, featured high-energy, twitchy rhythms and syncopated melodic outbursts, and included a texture of shadowing or blurring, where two dissimilar instruments play lines that are almost but not quite the same.5  The melodies of the two winds were often “shadowed”:  after an opening solo, the trumpet was shadowed by the marimba, then by marimba plus piano, then the bass clarinet and trumpet playing in fourths shadowed by the marimba again.  The bass clarinet was shadowed by the double-bass and piano left hand.  Textures without the winds included a marimba solo and a delicious penultimate section of marimba shadowed by xylophone and piano left-hand.  The work culminated in a joyful “tutti” coda.

Festival of Contemporary Music performs Harrison Birtwistle's Cortege at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Festival of Contemporary Music performs Harrison Birtwistle’s Cortege at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

Barry’s work was followed by one of the high-points of the festival, a study in brilliant melodic writing: Harrison Birtwistle’s Cortege (2007) subtitled “a ceremony for 14 musicians.”  Essentially a chamber concerto where almost everyone took a turn as the soloist, the theatrical element was present in the staging itself:  the conductorless ensemble formed a semi-circle with an extra-large bass drum in front and to the right of center, the player facing the other musicians and occasionally providing subtle cues with head-nods.  The trumpeter walked up to a music stand at stage center and the music began like a concerto for trumpet and ensemble; after a series of proclamations, the first violinist joined him, and she played along vigorously until he withdrew and left her as the new soloist, with very active and varied support from the group.  This process was repeated with bassoon, viola, horn, oboe, another violin, clarinet, and bass trumpet.  Finally the flute appeared, requiring the general dynamic level to retreat, and the soloist turned to each player inviting her or him to join her; as they did so, they stood up until all “soloists” were back on their feet and the music came to a conclusion.  While the work is atonal, the melodic writing and the lively and constantly varying scoring keep the through line of the music continuously engaging, with the virtuosic skills and personalities of the individual instrumentalists providing character and color.  

Jacob Schafer and Daniel Zelibor perform Oliver Knussen's Reflection at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Jacob Schafer and Daniel Zelibor perform Oliver Knussen’s Reflection at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.29.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

Two works of Oliver Knussen displayed the powerfully expressive lyricism of this composer, whose recent loss was felt all the more deeply.  Reflection for violin and piano (2017) received its first performance on Saturday night by Jacob Schafer and Danny Zelibor is a succinct piece that rises from the violin’s low G, joined by the piano in its high register to merge into shared melodic material that keeps the violin in the foreground.  The language is richly expressive with tonal references that do not inhibit the movement of the lyrical line; at the center is a beautiful double-stop passage succeeded by a soaring violin melody over rippling piano figures.  The piano has its own moment leading to a climax and a swift conclusion.

Stefan Asbury leads soprano Elena Villalón in Oliver Knussen's Songs and a Sea-Interlude for soprano and orchestra at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.30.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Stefan Asbury leads soprano Elena Villalón in Oliver Knussen’s Songs and a Sea-Interlude for soprano and orchestra at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.30.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

On Monday evening, the TMC Orchestra led by Stefan Asbury offered a song-cycle, Songs and a Sea-Interlude, based on the one-act opera Where the Wild Things Are (1979-1983), in essence a condensation of the opera to the solos of the protagonist, Max.  In this performance, the vocals were shared by the excellent sopranos Alexandra Smither and Elena Villalón, offering two perspectives on the feisty/vulnerable voice of the hero.  Knussen’s musical sensibility merges seamlessly with Sendak’s literary/visual milieu; the cycle moved succinctly through Max’s emotional stages:  uninhibited rebellion, discovery of his natural/physical being, celebration of the wild impulses, and journey home.  From the jazzy playfulness of the Scherzino to the broad romantic tone-painting of the Sea-Interlude representing the return, Knussen’s language is always colorfully expressive and emotionally legible, leading one to wish for a performance of the entire opera.

By coincidence or design, two quartets featuring one wind plus string trio each appeared back-to-back on Saturday evening’s chamber concert.  Both called for virtuoso wind-playing, were harmonically accessible, and offered many lyrical pleasures.  Sean Shepherd’s Quartet for Oboe and Strings (2011) was followed by Andrew Norman’s Light Screens for flute and strings (2002).  The tone of both pieces was light, with Shepherd’s being more playful and episodic, Norman’s having a longer trajectory and more driving energy.  Both called for expert playing and received it from oboist Mark Debski and flutist Shannon Vandzura along with their respective string colleagues.  Quartet, inspired by Mozart’s work for the same instruments, consists of linked sections of contrasting character.  It starts with a flowing oboe line punctuated by string interjections; slower lyrical strings come to the fore with fluttery oboe comments in a passage for solo violin that turns impressionistic and almost tonal which the oboe then extends over rich string harmonies.  This leads to an oboe cadenza as the work takes on the character of a mini-concerto.  Strings re-enter in harmonics, the tempo slows for a simple viola solo of short phrases, and finally the original configuration returns in a light-hearted vein, ending with a plucked chord.  

Shannon Vandzura, Carolyn Semes, Johanna Nowik, and Hana Cohon perform Andrew Norman's Light Screens at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.28.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Shannon Vandzura, Carolyn Semes, Johanna Nowik, and Hana Cohon perform Andrew Norman’s Light Screens at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood 7.28.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

Norman’s architecturally-linked work evokes the horizontality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s housing designs which were in turn inspired by the landscape of the prairie.  Specifically, Norman cites the stained glass in those buildings, hence the title.  Horizontality is translated into propulsively flowing rhythms that make this attractive work compelling and at the same time harken back to the “American” rhythms of the ‘30’s-‘40’s composers associated with Serge Koussevitzky, most specifically Walter Piston.6  While the energy flows through varied timbral landscapes, the unity and directionality of the music never falters, and the increasing virtuosity of the flute part and of the ensemble as a whole provided an utterly compelling experience.

Witold Lutosławski rehearsing.
Witold Lutosławski rehearsing.

This review omits mention of a number of significant works that were part of the festival; they either failed to make a positive impression, succumbed to the reviewer’s “listener fatigue,” or would require more space here than the reader could be expected to tolerate.  But space does need to be made for what I experienced not only as a high point of this festival, but of festivals within memory.  That was the TMC Orchestra’s Monday night performance under Adès’s direction of the Symphony no. 3 of Witold Lutosławski.  Regular readers are aware of my very high regard for this composer; while he ranks with Ligeti, Boulez, and Carter as a towering figure of the mid and late 20th century, he seems to me the strongest candidate for a kind of transcendence of modernism, an integration of the widest scope of aesthetic values including urgent and immediate communication with an audience that needs no special pleading, technical knowledge, nationalist background, or programmatic support.  It makes its own self-contained statement in the clearest and most emphatic possible terms, and constitutes a kind of summa of music in the late 20th century.   Composed over a ten-year period, 1973-1983, and subjected to the composer’s unsparing self-criticism and lofty artistic standards, this work harvests the technical developments of his works from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, including semi-aleatoric “musical mobiles” that became fundamental to his compositional voice,7 as well as the use of formal processes and materials that reach further back to the Concerto for Orchestra (1954).  The seamless integration of all of this into a monumental design of kaleidoscopic variety (texturally, dynamically, timbrally, and expressively) is rendered vivid by the control of expectation and the flow of events that builds to one of the most thrilling high-points in the symphonic literature, in the “Toccata” section which occupied the composer for much of the decade-long gestation.  The composer has cited Beethoven as a primary influence on his sense of form; this was apparent in the way the work’s unfolding became a gripping and crucial experience for the listener.

While the work was widely performed after its Chicago Symphony premier, and has been recorded eight times, its special techniques of coordination and its complex technical demands remain formidable challenges for orchestra and conductor.  That may be one reason why it is not heard more often in recent subscription concerts in the US.  But at Tanglewood, its difficulties were zestfully overcome by the commitment and thorough understanding of Adès (who has expressed his esteem for Lutosławski on several occasions) and the brilliance of the TMC Orchestra.  How they learned this huge score, demanding on every section and player along with the rest of Monday night’s program in a single week can only be explained by the inspiration coming from the podium drawing every ounce of technical skill and musical excitement from all involved.  For them, wonderment and thanks are due in equal measure.8

  1. Carl Ruggles was still alive in 1961 at age 85, but hadn’t written any new music for decades.  He hung on another 10 years.
  2. “Ein Herze, das zu Grund Gott still ist, wie er will, Wird gern von ihm berührt; es ist sein Lautenspiel.” Der Cherubinischer Wandersmann (1657).
  3. Predecessors would be Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) and Ivan Wyshnegradsky (1893-1979).
  4. described by the composer as a “bi-modal singing style.” Sutartiné is a group-singing or playing tradition, usually in two parts, with a preference for dissonant intervals, especially seconds.
  5. This technique was used by Charles Ives at the end of his Third Symphony to suggest the sonic distortion produced by hearing something at a distance, as a church choir or bells from across a valley.  The “shadow lines” were omitted when the score was published in 1946, but restored in recent performances.
  6. The reader can use Piston’s wonderful Flute Quintet (1942) as a point of comparison.
  7. Here is a description of this technique from Wikipedia:  “At the beginning of the illustrated page from the score, for instance, the woodwinds and brass (notated at the top of the page) are playing short repeated passages. The composer specifies completely the music for each player, leaving the interpretation to the individuals: only the co-ordination between the parts is unspecified. The strings (notated at the bottom of the page) join the texture by sections: first the violins, then the violas, the cellos and lastly the basses, all playing rapid repeating figures. The string players do not coordinate their playing (even within sections) except for their entries. These entries are indicated by the conductor, as instructed by the down-arrows above the string parts.”ławski).
  8. For a more detailed discussion of the symphony, including that of the composer, see Tom Service’s article in the Guardian here:
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