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.
This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood had a distinguished guest director-curator, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is as admired for his performances of Elliott Carter as for his refined and powerful Debussy and Bach. He had something to convey to his audience, too. He wanted us to know the work of two living European composers important to him: the 53-year-old Italian Marco Stroppa and the 77-year-old German Helmut Lachenmann, figures little known in this country, although Stroppa was a student at MIT in the 1980s and in 2008 Lachenmann was a visiting professor of music at Harvard.
Elliott Carter, who died on November 5 a little over a month before his 104th birthday, wrote music that is tough to love: it can be thorny, knotty, dense, complex, brainy, abstract, atonal, harsh, jagged, and sometimes genuinely off-putting. It has no intention of seducing listeners, of attracting love through flattery, cajolery, putting on a song and dance, of singing “let me entertain you.” It is also prismatically colorful, rich in varied gestures, dazzling, continuously stimulating, full of the liveliest contrasts, always connected to human utterances, capable of suggesting a complete personality in micro-seconds. Its complexity is layered, and every layer speaks in a different voice, each voice constantly modulating itself in response to the others in ways that often seem all-too-human, reacting defensively, opposing, ignoring, or criticizing, harping, deploring, chuckling ironically, cackling, and on occasion, agreeing.[caption id="attachment_20387" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Elliott Carter (1908-2012)[/caption]
by Hart Crane
Infinite consanguinity it bears—
This tendered theme of you that light
Retrieves from sea plains where the sky
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke
Wide from your side, whereto this hour
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.
[Go to the article to hear Elliott Carter’s setting of this poem.]
The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste
I’m in two minds about the Proms tradition of always allotting significant programming space to composers with major anniversaries. It’s transparently a fairly arbitrary device to make the programmers’ jobs much easier and minimise the thorny problem of personal taste entering the decision-making process; on the other hand, without it we would never get three concerts this year featuring one of my favourites, Percy Grainger (died 50 years ago). In particular, the late night Prom on 2 August including Kathryn Tickell and June Tabor, celebrating the folk music Grainger was inspired by, is to me one of the most interesting this year.
Varieties of modern orchestral experience, British and American, were on display at the concluding event of this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, with three out of four offerings featuring the full (or over-full) resources of large ensembles. The Carter song-cycle used the pared-down configuration of a good-sized chamber-orchestra to support the solo soprano. Each work inhabited a distinctive sound-world and had its own conductor; it was almost as if we were hearing four different orchestras. It would be neat if I could diagram the four pieces as the points on a musical compass, but the chronological distance between the Copland (1946) and the rest (1982-2010) was such that the picture would look more like a buried root system connected to the leafy ends of three branches, and not all even belonging to the same tree. (Freud said that you are bound to run into problems if you try to construct a physical model of the mind; I’m having the same problem with this set of pieces.) But one implicit subtext may have inadvertently bound three of the four works together, that of war and peace.
The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.