New England’s Prospect: The Manicured Lawns (Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music)

There is no good reason for Tanglewood to be where it is, apart from the late, latent imprint of Gilded Age fortunes, the leftover patronage that lured first Henry Hadley then Serge Koussevitzky to the Berkshires in the 1930s. This season’s Tanglewood anniversary—lately, every year seems to bring one—is the 75th of the Music Shed, erected in 1938 as a riposte to nature: conceived, funded, designed, and built in a spasm of pique over an epic rainstorm the previous season. The place channels history at every turn, but it is not so much the history of the land it sits on, or the century’s worth of people who passed through it on its way to its current incarnation. It is the history of itself. The past that Tanglewood leverages is its own. It is a recursive monument.

I mention this as a possible explanation for why, even after more than four decades, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music still seems to be making itself up as it goes along. In one sense, it should—the music keeps changing, so the FCM should, too. But the goal seems to change from year to year. Is it a survey, a snapshot of the time? An in-depth exploration of particular personalities? A stake-in-the-ground vision of the future? A chance to adjust the ledger of the past? An educational exercise? All of the above?

Under the direction of pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, this year’s festival—Thursday to Monday, August 8-12—glanced off several of those possibilities without settling on any one. The festival-as-portrait was divided up three ways—and across two continents—between Elliott Carter (in memoriam), Marco Stroppa, and Helmut Lachenmann. The festival-as-rewind centered around a concert that sought to bring some venerable American classical counterculture into the Tanglewood fold. The festival-of-the-moment brought the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, presented in concert on Monday night.

At the same time, the FCM felt weirdly hemmed in. A limited, all-male, all-white roster of composers was hardly an adventurous template. But the festival also, from piece to piece, seemed to be changing its mind on what exactly it wanted to be.

***

Thursday’s concerts (which I covered for the Boston Globe) had included Instances, Carter’s second-to-last work; Friday’s opened with his last, Epigrams, performed by violinist Sarah Silver and cellist Michael Dahlberg (both members of the New Fromm Players) and Aimard at the piano. Like Instances, the piece is aphoristic, mercurial in the alchemical sense, its prima materia seeming to encompass all manner of metals, soft and hard, dark and bright. Also like Instances, it seems to play with the idea of late-period music: efficiently brief and often elegiac—some of the string writing in Epigrams is as lyrical as anything Carter ever wrote, going all the way back to his neo-classic Americana—but constantly surrounded by sharp, disjunct, even fierce commentary and contrast.

Lachenmann’s portfolio—introduced on Thursday with “…zwei Gefühle…,” a quite thorough deconstruction of texts by Leonardo da Vinci—continued on Friday with his Third String Quartet, Grido (beneficiary of a phenomenal performance by the JACK Quartet). As is Lachenmann’s wont, Grido is a canvas of noise: bowing on the bridge, bowing behind the bridge, bowing the tailpiece, bowing the tuning pegs, dragging the bow up and down the strings like a howl of wind, with occasional incursions of denatured pitch. Grido also shares with “…zwei Gefühle…” a seeming multitude of endings, the music coming to a halt only to start up again, on its way to another (temporary) halt. It gives Lachenmann’s music a kind of eschatological heaviness, an enervating existential persistence built into the music’s structure.

The Tanglewood Music Center performed the U.S. premiere of Marco Stroppa's Let Me Sing Into Your Ear on Thursday night with amplified basset horn player Michele Marielli. Photo by Hilary Scott.

The Tanglewood Music Center performed the U.S. premiere of Marco Stroppa’s Let Me Sing Into Your Ear on Thursday night with amplified basset horn player Michele Marielli.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Let Me Sing Into Your Ear, Stroppa’s electrified basset horn concerto performed on Thursday night, proved a divertimento next to Friday’s Traietorria, for piano and computerized sound. Stroppa, a three-decade veteran of electronic composition, has a style that falls somewhere between music and sound art; Traietorria, finished in 1989 but only making it to the United States now, is a catalog and a summation, a 45-minute marathon of acoustic/digital interaction that is both strikingly advanced, considering its ‘80s vintage, but also technologically limited in a way that—compared with 2010′s Let Me Sing Into Your Ear—seemed to have demanded a more deliberate and conscientious curation of its resources. The piano writing is of a fascinating virtuosity: Gaspard de la Nuit, maybe, or the Three Pieces from Petrouchka, crushed and compressed into dense recycled fury. Traietorria is vast and uncompromising, and a lot of the audience was squirming by the end. But I loved it. True, I love big, obsessive manifesti. But I also loved the opportunity to hear it. Aimard clearly wanted to bring the piece here, and was clearly using the FCM as the chance to do it. Is that enough reason for the festival itself? Traietorria made the case for a resounding maybe.

***

In past years, something like Traietorria—or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the anchor of the Sunday morning concert—probably would have been a concert unto itself: a prelude to one of the full-length festival concerts, or a late-night happening in the old Tanglewood Theatre. The FCM, when I first started going, ran from Wednesday through Sunday night. Now it runs Thursday through Monday. Given the immoveable object that is the BSO schedule—Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, now also an open rehearsal on Saturday morning—that one-day shift has both limited the FCM’s offerings and increasingly bumped its concerts up against the Boston Symphony Orchestra itself.

Saturday’s concert, for instance, was presented as the 6:00 p.m. prelude to the 8:30 p.m. BSO concert, which meant a visiting contingent of BSO patrons shifting and grumbling their way through what actually was one of the more entertaining programs of the week. Aimard played a sampler of Carter’s post-Night Fantasies solo piano music (Retrouvailles, Tri-Tribute, and 90+), his nervous, crystalline touch ideal for the music’s hyper-intelligent, kitten-on-the-keys style. Stroppa’s Ossia: Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone (an homage to Joseph Brodsky) was another assemblage of effects, this time for piano trio (violinist Matthew Leslie Santana, cellist Louise Grevin, and pianist Katherine Dowling), but with the visual and aural diversion of a different stage placement for each movement. Where Stroppa went delicate, Lachenmann, on this concert, went slapstick: GOT LOST, in a performance of unfailing deadpan mastery by pianist Stephen Drury and soprano Elizabeth Keusch, deconstructed the idea of art song, its own text, and the conventions of performance into a monument of weighty goofiness. Like the rest of Lachenmann’s works, it is deliberately drawn out, though here the lengthy disintegration is played as a bleak, I’m-not-dead-yet joke.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs piano works by Elliott Carter. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs piano works by Elliott Carter.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

The 8:30 p.m. concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed included the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s annual nod at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music: Sound Fields, Elliott Carter’s brief exercise in string-orchestra klangfarbenharmonie that was premiered at the 2008 FCM. Four minutes of soft chords is, on paper, about as perfunctory a contribution to the festival as the BSO could make, but they did a lovely job with it, conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi energetically cueing the structural accents beneath the music’s placid surface. The audience? At least where I was, the audience was unusually terrible, coughing throughout. I finally made peace with it by imagining it as an impromptu Lachenmann jest: a memento mori of audible ill-health, paying tribute to Carter by acknowledging that no one in the audience was likely to live as long as he did.

***

The three middle FCM concerts were marked by a comparative absence of Tanglewood Music Center Fellows. The New Fromm Players are TMC alumni, a troupe of contemporary specialists specially hired for each summer season, and they shared the stage with a stream of guests: Aimard, the JACK Quartet, Drury, and Keusch. The student fellows filled out the more orchestral-sized ensembles on Thursday’s concert (and the Reich). But Grevin, the cellist in Stroppa’s trio, was the only fellow on these chamber concerts—that is, until a last-minute substitution let a quartet of fellows (Matthew Vera, Thomas Hofmann, Adrienne Hochman, and Francesca McNeeley) open Sunday morning’s concert with an exhilarating performance of György Ligeti’s 1954 String Quartet No. 1, replacing the previously scheduled Monument—Selbstporträt—Bewegung (that was to have been performed by Dowling and Nicolas Namoradze, both New Fromm Players).

Having Ligeti’s early quartet rather than his later, puckish salute to minimalism, somewhat unraveled the programming thread of the concert, which, on paper, was to lead up to the Reich 18. The addition of more Stroppa, too, was a bit of a detour: BSO cellist Mickey Katz (a former New Fromm Player himself) played Stroppa’s Ay, There’s the Rub, a slow formal morph between pitch-based and noise-based extended techniques. (Katz followed it with an encore, another memorial, one of Henri Dutilleux’s 3 Strophes sur le nom de Sacher that did much the same as Stroppa’s piece, but with a more deft accent.) The ceremony proper started with a dashing rendition—by Dowling and Namoradze—of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies Nos. 5 and 6 (in a transcription by Thomas Adès), then, after intermission, concluded with Music for 18 Musicians. If the performance was clean but a little square—more downbeat than backbeat—the familiar machinery made Ozawa Hall ring.

***

By the time everyone reassembled on Monday night for Written on Skin, it felt like yet another festival. Benjamin’s opera was having its American premiere, and the anticipation was high. Premiered in 2012, Written on Skin is fugitive in a way that echoes the FCM itself, constantly shifting its own identity. The plot is medieval: a love triangle between a severe Protector (baritone Evan Hughes), his wife Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer), and the Boy (countertenor Augustine Mercante), hired by the Protector to produce a lavish, expensive illuminated book. A pair of angels (mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil and tenor Isaiah Bell) offer commentary and, in the guise of Agnés’s sister and brother-in-law, a brittle mirror to the Protector and Agnés. And to us: Martin Crimp’s libretto freely drops in anachronistic reference to contemporary consumerism, class division, and religious fanaticism. The characters alternate between proclaiming their own symbolic status and narrating their own stage action.

Augustine Mercante, Evan Hughes, Lauren Snouffer and conductor George Benjamin performing Written on Skin in Ozawa Hall 8.12.13.Photo by Hilary Scott.

Augustine Mercante, Evan Hughes, Lauren Snouffer, and conductor George Benjamin performing Written on Skin in Ozawa Hall.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

None of this should work; it all does, spectacularly. The orchestra (conducted by Benjamin) seethes and burns like molten steel; the vocal lines stutter and soar, forever off-balance but ready to take flight at a moment’s rage; the climax of the opera—the Protector kills the Boy, serves his heart to his wife, who then commits suicide in joyful spite—shifts from lurid to magical with breathtaking dexterity. After the rest of the festival’s cross-purposes, even in its more rewarding moments, to bring this piece across the Atlantic felt like a real coup. And the performance—mostly TMC Fellows, only Hughes and a few extra instrumentalists joining as guests—had fierce grandeur. More than that, though, the opera’s cross-referenced multiplicity—the way it combined the distance of legend with the immediacy of reinvention, the precise description of its action with its euphoric evocation, the proclamation of archetype with individual specificity—offered a possible mission statement for the FCM as a whole: a glittering interchange, ever-shifting, looking forward and looking back, equal parts ritual and experiment, all held together by sheer musical brio.

The self-conjured nature of Tanglewood extends to the FCM; it means, for one thing, that no one will ever be happy with what it is, because it seems like it could be whatever you want it to be. I can’t think of another new music festival that people have quibbled and argued about for so long, but that, too, is a kind of heritage: not many new music festivals are so worth the quibbles and arguments. Give the FCM credit: it leaves you wanting more—more concerts; more American innovations, more European innovations, and more input from the wide world beyond that axis; more musicians sinking their teeth into the repertoire; more sheer when-else-will-we-ever-do-this impractical madness. It’s a tall order. But if you can make your own history, why not shoot for the moon?

TMC Fellows perform "Music for 18 Musicians" by Steve Reich as part of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood on 8.11.13. Photo by HIlary Scott.

TMC Fellows perform Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich as part of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

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