Miranda Cuckson and Conrad Tao held the stage at PS 21 on two successive Friday nights as part of a series of mostly contemporary music concerts at the semi-open stage in Chatham NY, on August 28 and September 4. Both performers captivated their audiences with superb focus and transcendent technique, conveying a fierce commitment to contemporary repertory that gained force by virtue of the context of the pandemic. Played to masked listeners seated in a distanced pattern, the intense performances knitted musician, audience, and composers together into a powerful matrix of expressive power and imaginative adventure.
Let’s now return to more hopeful times during the summer with further—and concluding—reports on PS21’s Modern Music Fest by Larry Wallach on concerts by violinist Miranda Cuckson and composer-piano virtuoso Conrad Tao and myself on a recital by another, no less virtuosic composer-pianist, Timo Andres. I am unaware of any other organization to have offered professionally presented, socially-distanced live music in the Hudson Valley or Berkshires during the summer season, and that in itself was most welcome. But, beyond that, the Modern Music Fest, organized by PS 21’s Artistic Director, Elena Siyanko, only weeks before it opened, to replace an ambitious program of visitors from abroad which was planned last year, long before anyone thought of Covid-19. Most impressive were the coherence and focus of the programming, as well as the level of musicianship among the performing artists, all of whom hailed from New York City. As we all know, New Yorkers were not entirely occupied with surviving a readily spread and often lethal microbial threat, but hostility from the federal executive, an equally dangerous disease threatening the basic rights of not just themselves but of all American citizens. Mr. Andres and Mr. Tao, as well as the leadership of PS21 were energetically participating in movements which, have, from this retrospective point in time, have preserved the right to vote and have reminded Americans of their duty to vote, so far. These urgent concerns brought them together while they were pursuing their daily lives under these radically altered circumstances, including the planning and rehearsal of the music that brought us all together in Chatham.
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.