Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Festival of Contemporary Music, at Tanglewood. Disposable singers, impossible scores, upchucking

A scene from Richard Ayres’s The Cricket Recovers at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music: TMC vocal fellows Kameryn Lueng, Emily Helenbrook, and Chloe Schaaf (left to right; Hilary Scott photograph).

A scene from Richard Ayres’s The Cricket Recovers at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music: TMC vocal fellows Kameryn Lueng, Emily Helenbrook, and Chloe Schaaf (left to right; Hilary Scott photograph).

Festivals can be organized many ways. Birthdays work. Death days too. Themes (“Monument to Monumentalism: Mahler’s Majesty”) sometimes work as well. 

Simply calling up some friends might be easiest.

Thomas Adès organized this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, by inviting friends, and colleagues, and teachers. He brought a couple visionaries, and invited some bittersweet memories as well. 

The festival, since 1963 a reminder of how many impossible-to-master scores the Tanglewood Music Center fellows can actually master, ran Aug. 8 through 12 at the placid summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

The fact that Adès, the BSO’s artistic partner, also served as the festival’s director—a rotating position previously held by artists like Knussen, Schuller, Harbison, Wuorinen, Stucky and other men—connected FCM symbolically to the busy orchestra playing host.

The festival has rarely had tightly focused programming, and Adès maintained a light touch. He participated primarily by conducting: Richard Ayres’s festival opener The Cricket Recovers;  Poul Ruders’s fifth symphony; his own Asyla; and a work that didn’t seem to need a conductor, Erika Fox’s quintet, “Hungarian Rhapsody” (it did). He also participated (somewhat) in one forum over the weekend, during which he refused—in the most jocular way—to reveal anything at all about his own music.

Adès invited many voices—a given, at such a gathering. Some were intersections from his early training at Guildhall; others from his tenure as artistic director at a different new-music hotbed, the Aldeburgh Festival. Some of the new voices were older voices: Adès’s first (and only, he said) teacher, British composer Fox, whose decades of compositions have gone unheard, was a major presence. 

Thomas Adès leads the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Poul Ruders' Fifth Symphony, Aug. 12 at Ozawa Hall. Hilary Scott photograph

Thomas Adès leads the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Poul Ruders' Fifth Symphony, Aug. 12 at Ozawa Hall. Hilary Scott photograph

Chronologically, Adès began with “ultramodern”: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s brief 1931 masterpiece of a quartet, inventively dissonant. He eventually made it to the just-plain modern: premieres by Andrew Hamilton and Nathan Shields (“Commedia,”), as well as other regional premieres.

Nothing stops at Tanglewood, so FCM percolates along with the usual Tanglewood spectaculars—Yo-Yo Ma causing traffic jams; Kavakos simultaneously conducting and soloing the Beethoven violin concerto. Adès himself also conducted a subscription program during the weekend. A silent film workshop for TMC composing fellows ran concurrently, with half-a-dozen brief but thoughtful scores presented with snippets from various pre-talkies. All that other activity gives FCM an almost underground quality.

FCM attracts its own great audience of composers, composer friends, composer fan-girls and -boys. But it remains the special province of the 150-or so fellows at Tanglewood, emerging professionals every one, who enliven this too perfectly bucolic campus with energy. As Erika Fox marveled, back in the day—and she wasn’t talking about that long ago—even seasoned professionals couldn’t play like they do.

The hectic pace did point out one shortcoming: the overall lack of BSO presence at FCM. Adès’s participation helped, but even a single performance by BSO players—a chamber piece of Adès’s own, perhaps—would have mollified the “new music gets marginalized” feeling. Like most orchestras, the BSO doesn’t play enough new music. This festival is a chance for the orchestra to change that, at least symbolically.

Tough scores were the norm, along with plenty of extended techniques and head-spinning musical ideas. But as antidote, Richard Ayres’s delicate look at depression, The Cricket Recovers, proved a great way to start the weekend. 

This chamber opera, which Adès commissioned at Aldeburgh in 2005, opened FCM Thursday evening in Ozawa Hall. A seamlessly conceived young adult concept, with a taut score, it featured a gloomy Cricket (soprano Robin Steitz), a tree-climbing Elephant (baritone Nathaniel Sullivan) and their concerned animal friends. It proved perfect for a festival where too many people take themselves too seriously. The Cricket Recovers presents almost entirely humorous discourse on real issues, explored inventively with a punchy score, props a kid would love, and short scenes.

No style dominated at FCM. Hamilton had two minimalist works performed, and Steve Reich’s 2012 Radiohead piece “Radio Rewrite,” along with Adès’s Asyla in ways, added to that discipline. Both Chaya Czernowin and Hilda Paredes—in starkly different ways—presented atmospheric, idiosyncratically structured works. Paredes’s “Revelación,” and Czernowin’s quartet/octet Anea Crystal, were single representations of deep rich musical catalogue from both composers. 

Fox’s “Hungarian Rhapsody”—a quintet with so many doublings it needed a circus-master to operate—sounded almost exactly like Adès's own chamber music, with confidently obscure references, rhythmic escapades, and the feeling that another listening would be helpful.

A string quartet of the New Fromm Players—half-a-dozen even more advanced young professionals—ventured Czernowin’s Anea Crystal (2008) in the Saturday evening program. Czernowin wrote two discrete string quartets, meant to be played individually, that also can be layered in simultaneous octet performance. 

All three versions were performed—a feat of logistics. The concept sounded better than it worked, mostly because the spare individual quartets seem to run out of musical ideas. The playing shone.

Hamilton dropped a bomb on the festival. The same bomb, twice; with his string quartet, and an ensemble work with vocalist, “music for people who like art.” Soprano Anna Elder braved that voice-destroying part. The Irish composer set off a fff explosion in both works that assaulted the audience for ten minutes or so. Friday’s quartet brandished a set of pounded chords in the piano, with simple string glissandos over the blasts. 

In “music for people who like art,” Elder vocalized robotic triplets around the phrase “Art Is Art.” It extended impossibly long, with breath-defying impersonality. The volume created a confrontational mood—a sort of “Take that, listener,” until Hamilton started to pull both simple (but loud) notions apart in a kind of taffy pull. 

Dozens of times, Elder inserted an upchucking noise in the triplet. After the first couple dozen repetitions, the gross sound got humorous, but it looked and sounded risky for the bold soloist. The work needs disposable sopranos.

The festival featured several solid pieces that deserve more hearings. Thea Musgrave’s “Space Play” (1974) probably has had; in this performance, hornist Victoria Knudtson multitasked as group leader. Turning and addressing players physically and musically from center-stage, counting off improvisation sections, guiding entrances, Knudtson acted as tour guide.

Gerald Barry’s “Canada” (that’s the title and the entire libretto, almost): Tenor Charles Blandy and conductor Nathan Aspinall with the TMCO. Hilary Scott photograph

Gerald Barry’s “Canada” (that’s the title and the entire libretto, almost): Tenor Charles Blandy and conductor Nathan Aspinall with the TMCO. Hilary Scott photograph

Percussionist Joe Desotelle anchored a sometimes swinging, sometimes lyric ensemble in Shields’s “Commedia,” which drew nicely with both antic and noir colors. Reich’s “Radio Days” seemed like a cleansing purge, beautifully realized by a percussion-laced ensemble. Gerald Barry’s mock-serious “Canada”—that’s both the title and the libretto—added another light touch. Tenor Charles Blandy nailed the part.

The final evening featured two concerts: a prelude tribute to Oliver Knussen, and the TMCO finale, with the entire orchestra onstage. That last program, easily the most substantial and focused of the festival, included Poul Ruders’s fifth symphony, and Adès’s own breakthrough work, Asyla.

Asyla has recognizable eccentricities—a cowbell movement, a techno movement. Focus runs toward those identifiable characteristics, but a generous complexity of ideas inhabits the four movements.

The distinguished Dutch composer Poul Ruders was present all weekend, and his two works were a highlight. The five-movement quartet, written in 2012, alternated adagios with prestos. Two centerpiece movements, one from each flavor, created multiple perspectives of Ruders’s spare, chiaroscuro architecture.

The festival had a decidedly British air—Fox, Zoë Martlew, Hamilton, Ayres, Barry, Paredes

—no surprise given Adès’s presence. Alive in many memories—British and not—was the personality of Oliver Knussen, longtime Tanglewood guiding spirit who passed away last summer.

The tribute concert was devoted to Olly, and those in his orbit, with four works by Knussen, including two of his most Debussy-like compositions, “Prayer Bell Sketch” (pianist Tomoki Park) and “Sonya’s Lullaby” (pianist Christine Wu). His spiky “Variations” (Wu again, impressively) showed a different side. 

Knussen’s “Whitman Settings,” with sopranos Elizabeth Polese and Margaret Tigue, were also performed. The four songs were deeply involved, turning Whitman’s direct observations into a world of sonic possibilities. Knussen appreciated (and conducted) simple music too: Jo Kondo’s “Caccia” for toy piano, and Niccolò Castiglioni’s “Come io passo l’estate”—piano lessons for beginners.

The 2019 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, curated this season by BSO Artistic Partner Thomas Adès, ran from Aug. 8 through 12. 

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