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.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.