In the Twenty-First Century, a festival of contemporary music needs a point of focus. A broad or representative survey is impossible; there are simply too many wildly varied approaches to music-making out there than can be sampled even in a festival twice as long as the six-concert event this summer at Tanglewood. By choosing composers who have been fellows there, the organizers John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi offered a musical profile that was primarily American and tended toward the conservative side, especially compared to past festivals which a greater representation of new European music. Also shown was the arc of American musical thinking over about four generations.
There was a moment when American opera companies faced greater challenges both producing and selling contemporary work, but could still be relied upon to produce the 19th century classics with success onstage and at the box office. Maybe the training and experience of musicians onstage and in the pit has finally caught up with the calendar. Maybe a newer idiom is less of a reach than the older one and the cultural displacement and carnage of the two World Wars has finally separated us from traditions of bel canto. Perhaps as listeners we hold different expectations of singers in contemporary work than we do of singers in Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet. For whatever reason, the production of Nixon in China currently gracing the stage of the San Francisco Opera is the most stylistically coherent achievement of their summer season and is bringing in audiences. Much praise to all concerned.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, listeners might have resisted accepting on credit the notion of a conductor performing new music charismatically. For many decades, full-house audiences (at those moments desperately wishing themselves sparse) tended to squirm patiently through modern works, waiting for ever more elusive harmony or so much as a symphonic phrase, the experience more to be withstood than understood. Dodecaphonic compositions, in particular, constituted toll-booths on the musical freeway: to be bought off as taxation, passed-through and, if lucky, forgotten. Certainly not to be loved.
Last week’s program at the San Francisco Symphony carried a sense of celebration with it. John Adams was in attendance, giving luster to the orchestra’s new performance and recording of his “Harmonielehre” under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (Edo De Waart taped the piece in his final year as Music Director, when Adams was composer-in-residence.) There has always been a tendency to rally around the orchestra in San Francisco — cultural boosterism being one of the old-fashioned charms of this now rather important city, which sometimes still thinks of itself as a town and behaves like one in its enthusiasms — and John Adams is a local hero in the orchestra’s history. But the spontaneous applause I heard on Saturday seemed to go beyond these boundaries. It is a though, from the standpoint of an audience, Adams were being hailed for having rescued contemporary music — and indeed, he just may have.