Festival of Contemporary Music, at Tanglewood. Aug. 11, 2017

The second in a series of short reviews of the Festival of Contemporary Music, ongoing at Tanglewood (Aug. 10–14). A summary review will appear at the conclusion of the festival at Classical Voice North America (classicalvoiceamerica.org).

The Del Sol String Quartet has made its mark championing contemporary composition. Its cellist, Kathryn Bates, is bringing that energy to Tanglewood this weekend as a co-curator of the Festival of Contemporary Music. She programmed the second chamber concert of the festival, Friday afternoon in Ozawa Hall.

Bates focused on quartet literature, but the music took many different shapes. Compositions included works by the late New Zealander Jack Body, Terry Riley, Rene Orth, Moritz Eggert, Lei Liang (a violin/cello sonata), Ben Johnston, and a world premiere from Kui Dong. 

This will not be a comprehensive appraisal of this fascinating afternoon. Dong and Eggert broke new ground instrumentally: Dong by creating a theatrical piece with glass harmonica and player piano rolls, and Eggert adding a percussionist to the foursome and involving he string players in percussion as well.

Body’s work, “Flurry,” was set for three quartets (as with all FCM performances, the players were drawn from the outrageously talented Tanglewood Music Center fellows). Bates had them perform “Flurry” twice—a nice touch. It only runs a few minutes, but has decided energy. Built on ostinato triplets, nobody was disappointed when she shouted “Let’s do it again” after the first run.

Kui Dong’s premiere, “A Night at Tanglewood,” was an elegant structure: quiet, moving, engaging. Gentle textures, with little variation in sonic range, and modest volumes, were interspersed with player piano rolls run through hand-cranked home-made machines.

Three of the players began fingering glass globes, accompanied by cello drone. After setting the mood, they migrated to their stands, and performed as a quartet—but in the same sonic purview. 

The cellist (Francesca McNeeley) capped off the work by wandering over to the globes, revisiting their eerie sound.

It was quiet but dense, still but complex—all at the same time. 

 Tanglewood Music Center fellows performing Kui Dong's world premiere, A Night at Tanglewood. Hilary Scott photograph.

Tanglewood Music Center fellows performing Kui Dong's world premiere, A Night at Tanglewood. Hilary Scott photograph.

Riley? 1975’s “G Song,” an similarly simple exploration of that key, predominantly in rising and falling scales. Both Johnston’s “Amazing Grace” quartet (No. 4) and Lei’s “Gobi Canticle” explored pentatonic moods. Johnston’s quartets are never ever ever played enough. Orth’s “Stripped” had beautiful development, growing from growling, scratchy string playing into tender, fugal textures—and ending with a lovely ppp coda.

Eggert’s “Croatoan II”? Never seen overtaxed string players be so relieved that a piece was over. The work had some interest, but the gymnastics required of the quartet—who tapped instruments, shuffled feet, and rang bells, all trying to keep up with percussionist Tyler Flynt—were a distraction.


The Festival of Contemporary Music continues with a prelude concert Saturday evening in Ozawa Hall, featuring music by Caroline Shaw, Amy Williams, and Julian Anderson.