The fourth 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).
Intentionally or not, Nadia Sirota treated us like the morning guests that we all were, Sunday in Ozawa Hall. It was the violist’s turn to curate a program at the Festival of Contemporary Music, and she envisioned a tastefully appropriate set of works—not just for reveille either.
David Lang’s minimalist art-song, “just,” employed only a half-dozen pitches; Marcos Balter’s string quartet “Chambers” rarely rose in volume above p. And Thomas Adès’s gorgeously grave “Court Studies” examined pitch relationships one at a time—with piano, cello, violin and clarinet.
Nico Muhly’s understated “Clip”—the only premiere on the program—extended the mellow atmosphere. And even though Donnacha Dennehy’s percussion quartet “Surface Tension” drove the energy level up, in sum this was an organic, well-conceived program that added greatly to the festival.
Lang’s “just” sets repetitive, slight altered phrases—“just your mouth/just your eyes; and my beloved/and my soul”—over repetitive, slightly altered music. The lyrics were interpreted by a seated trio of female voices: two sopranos and a mezzo. The instrumentalists—percussion, viola and cello—barely broke a sweat. His textural inspiration came from Song of Songs.
It was a lengthy excursion into meaning and music. The vocal phrases only employ falling triplets, at an interval of a second (I think). Phrases only extend when the syllables demand. Slight melodies move from cello to viola, but always as accompaniment.
It’s quite lengthy, without any crescendo—semantically or musically. Simply a normalizing of the phrase, an expectation of its alluring repetition, and the simultaneously unachieved expectation at some intervening change. Art-song at its contemporary pinnacle.
Balter’s subtle “Chambers” employs virtuosic restraint: the players engage in barely perceptible shifts, but almost constantly. A similar description could apply to Adès’s inviting “Court Studies,” a gracious addition to any chamber program. Five interlocked movements narrate a fanciful reworking of the “Tempest”—drawn, at least by influence, from Adès’s opera on the same subject.
Muhly’s sextet “Clip”—flute, clarinet, trumpet and strings—was effervescent, surprisingly light. Short phrases, with emphatic crescendos, create an organic structure of sonic accessibility. Dennehy’s percussion quartet “Surface Tension” overstayed its musical ideas. Some of its notions fell unachieved: the percussionists each had breathing devices, which temporarily changed the pitches of their drum heads. A novel idea, the effect was largely inaudible. Bowing on a marimba created a wobbly, eerie sound, fully complimenting the virtuosic drumming, but the part seemed so physically complicated that it appeared much of it was misplayed (in addition to clobbering the music stand on several occasions).
The Festival of Contemporary Music continues unofficially Sunday evening in Ozawa Hall, a program that includes music by Rzewski, Wolff, Steiger and Andriessen. The final FCM program, orchestral works of Ligeti, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Huang Ruo, Dai Fujikura, and Dutilleux, will be Monday at 8 p.m., featuring the Lorelei Ensemble.