Festival of Contemporary Music opens, Thursday, Aug. 10 at Tanglewood

The Festival of Contemporary Music opened at Tanglewood Thursday evening with toys, tuning forks and text. Lots of it.

This year’s festival has three curators who share programming duties: Jacob Greenberg, Kathryn Bates and Nadia Sirota. Each presents one chamber program, and all three contribute to Monday evening’s finale. 

Greenberg chose works by Phyllis Chen, Gyorgy Kurtag, Nathan Davis, Anthony Cheung, Sofia Gubaidulina and George Lewis for Thursday evening’s opening program in Ozawa Hall. The performers were drawn from the excellent TMC fellows, with a few guests.

Davis (“The Sand Reckoner”; for voices and celeste) and Cheung (“All thorn, but cousin to your rose”; for the powerful soprano Paulina Swierczek, accompanied by Greenberg on piano) offered world premieres.

There is no summarizing such diverse repertory. Chen’s work always fascinates: in a creative atmosphere that emphasizes sound and textures in an almost rudimentary way, her explorations into the timbres of toy instruments seems appropriate, and inevitably leads to discovery. 

In this work, “Chimers” from 2011, she guts a toy piano, sets the innards upright on a stand, and has players set off pitches by touching the upright strings with tuning forks. Violin, toy glockenspiel and clarinet swirl around with short solo enhancements. Unique in all ways, and compelling.

One thing about Thursday’s program does suggest a summary: the verbose world premieres. Both Davis, using a scientific discourse from Archimedes, and Cheung, who borrowed from a screed against translators by Vladimir Nabokov, took the non-fiction approach to voice and instruments. 

Setting thousands of text for a singer inevitably leads to long passages of sprechstimme, or simply spoken word. It puts the singer at a remove from the music at times, and the text at a remove from artistic interpretation.

This is not so much criticism as observation. Both works had some interest, but not as lyric settings. They had interest in the juxtaposition of meaning, sound and intention. 

Nabokov’s text especially: his diatribe against the failings of translators (talk about an easy target—almost easier than music critics), which only partially made its point (his examples of failed translations didn’t seem that much like failings), forced the listener to examine the compositional goal.

It certainly wasn’t to highlight the text with musical emphasis (although the piano part was fascinating, and lovingly played by Greenberg). It wasn’t any attempt to disassociate the text from its meaning, or deconstruct it. In ways, it presented the text as if someone just opened the book and started singing. If lines were dropped (some were), it really didn’t matter. 

Davis skipped over such ideas about the text, enhancing Archimedes’s now irrelevant scientific insights in an otherworldly blend of layering, technique and juxtaposition. A sextet of terrific voices (soprano Alexandra Smither and bass Andrew Munn, most notably), with Greenberg on celeste and computer sounds, brought to life a piece that sounded organic in every measure.

Beautiful works by Gubaidulina (her “Meditation,” for sextet) and Kurtag (settings for voice, strongly presented by baritone Ryne Cherry and tenor Daniel McGrew), along with Lewis’s antic and charming “Anthem,” theatrically realized by soprano Kate Soper, added to the ambitious evening of ideas.

FCM often has a “generational” feel: composers come from one age-grouping of professionals, and the critical urge then is to find some trend or common ground among them. Not here. 

TMC fellows perform Phyllis Chen's "Chimers." Hilary Scott photograph.

TMC fellows perform Phyllis Chen's "Chimers." Hilary Scott photograph.

With Kurtag and Gubaidulina at the beginning, Lewis in the middle, and Cheung, Chen and Davis more recent practitioners, Greenberg’s choices cast a wide net over contemporary composition. A quick look at upcoming programs shows that Sirota and Bates do the same thing. There may be no summary available, but it made for an ear- and mind-stretching evening of music.

 

The first of brief reviews of each FCM program. There are additional programs Friday and Saturday afternoons, Sunday morning and evening, and Monday evening. An overview of the entire festival will appear at Classical Voice North America (classicalvoiceamerica.org) after the conclusion of the festival, Aug. 14.