Elena Siyanko, Executive Director of PS21, in her introductory comments preceding Alarm Will Sound‘s performance of John Luther Adams‘ Ten Thousand Birds, said that this event has been in the works for a year. Its purpose, conceived months before there was any hint in people’s minds that the performance would occur under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic which continues without an end in sight, at least in the United States. The particular features of the new performance structure and the determination and resourcefulness of Ms. Siyanko and her staff have made PS21 a pioneer in offering live performances under safe conditions. The performance of Ten Thousand Birds was intended to showcase the new PS21 and its new semi-open performance space to the public. The beautiful grounds surrounding it are in integral part of its design and function in a way quite different from Tanglewood and SPAC, where lawns simply provide expanded seating for those who prefer to be out in the open.
The time-frame of “contemporary music” keeps expanding. “Modern music” was a term (and the name of an American music magazine) current from the 20’s through ‘40’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.
Last month I had the pleasure of chatting with Inbal Segev, a young cellist from Israel, who has been making a mark in contemporary music and the classics. She was discovered by Isaac Stern as a high school student in Israel, and he arranged for her to come the United States to study at Yale and Juilliard. On this occasion we talked about her upcoming performance of Christopher Rouse’s cello concerto with the Albany Symphony under David Allan Miller and a very interesting—and successful—contemporary music festival sponsored by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Marin Alsop. It held its inaugural season just last summer.
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.