The Virtues of This and That: the 2011 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music
Ed. Note: In the coming weeks, NewMusicBox readers will be introduced to a new team of regional editors stationed in four cities across the country. These contributors will be our eyes and ears on the ground, surveying the new music landscape in their areas and delivering regular coverage.
It’s my pleasure to now welcome Boston-based roving reporter Matthew Guerrieri to our roster. –MS
The annual Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which started last Wednesday, has long been dominated by what used to be called the new-music mainstream, before new music sprouted so many streams that the title became dilute. Charles Wuorinen, the director of this year’s festival, certainly made his reputation in that mainstream: East Coast, atonal, academic. But, so far, this festival has been comparatively—well, funky might be too strong a word for it, but certainly more loose, more varied, than past festivals. It’s not exactly ecumenical—minimalism, chance music, the more far-out experimental traditions are only represented as influences, not by the genuine article. But there are more than enough styles to afford a change of style with nearly every piece, which is something.
The eclecticism was charged up by the festival’s opening piece, a world premiere: Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball! by Fred Ho—avant-garde jazz artist, political revolutionary, purveyor of ebullient confrontation, and a host of other not-stereotypically-Tanglewood qualities. The Fanfare is sharp, edgy fun—two trombones (Douglas Rosenthal and Paul Jenkins) lay down a heavy, cop-show-worthy riff, two trumpets (Alex Fioto and Najib Wong) jab in big-band punctuation, and then the four are off on a quick-fire collage of jazz colors: lockstep tall chords, vibrato-heavy sweetness, a passing bit of Raymond Scott factory machinery, counterpunching cross-rhythms. It’s a concise blast of smart attitude.
Wuorinen’s own 2006 Never Again the Same sets a James Tate poem, a sketch of a curiously apocalyptic sunset, for a sepulchral duo of bass and tuba. The sounds are keeping in Wuorinen’s atonal-modernist style—a baseline of dissonance, lines full of expressionistic leaps and sharp turns—but both the deep sound and the in-and-out-of-focus counterpoint, a tangle of weighty ropes, makes for an operatic effect: a scene from the Baroque stage, maybe, a rustic character puncturing the balloon of a myth with down-to-earth commentary. Bass David Salsbery Fry was an excellent witness, singing a challenging part in a way that made the challenge its least interesting aspect. José Martínez Antón, on tuba, set up his stand and chair with nervous meticulousness, only to have an infiltrating breeze—even Ozawa Hall is outdoors by extension—cast his music to the floor. The false start loosened him up: his gestures rumbled with high-contrast, low-wavelength vibrancy.
Wuorinen’s It Happens Like This, another world premiere, was both much larger and more carefree. The seven-part cantata, for four solo voices and a twelve-player ensemble (conducted by the composer), again sets Tate, but in a more storytelling mood. Each poem was almost an operatic scene in itself, an effect amplified by Ken Rus Schmoll’s nimbly light staging. The singers—soprano Sharon Harms, mezzo Laura Mercado-Wright, tenor Steven Brennfleck, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams, all superb—were also amplified (though not quite enough), shading towards a more musical theater vocal style, forward and clean, the articulation bright and easy. Sharply costumed in mid-’50s sitcom style, making quick-read characters, mixing dialogue and narration with a kind of matter-of-fact surrealism, the quartet fashioned unassuming absurdity.
The setting mixes speaking and singing freely, the better to keep the words on the move. Tate’s blank-verse yarns, chatty, discursive fables-without-morals, fly awfully close to whimsical rambling, but Wuorinen’s music does them the service of disciplining the whimsy, giving it the dance partner of an intricately flexible but precise rhythmic style. The instrumental writing is, again, modernist in that way that perhaps isn’t very modern anymore—pointillistic, quietly busy, the expressiveness frozen into vertical intervals rather than flowing melody—but the addition of text reveals Wuorinen as a composer who, unusually, lets the voices carry most, if not all, of the musical sensuality. “The Promotion,” a bleak jest about a dog dismayed to be reincarnated as a person, brought this quality to the fore: the four voices in nebulous, bewitching polyphony, the orchestra dropping in glints of cool color.
The cantata also showed a flair for running gags that took on increasing shadows—the low brass/bass drum punctuation to the sinister dinner party of “The Formal Invitation,” a slapstick axe-fall, returned as a grim commentary on the (human) species in “The Promotion,” and then was echoed at the end of “Intruders,” resolving a choose-your-own-ending encounter with a short, sharp shock. But, mostly, It Happens Like This works because Wuorinen’s fluid, complex rhythmic grid allows him to indulge a surprisingly exquisite sense of timing, comic and otherwise, neatly balancing the tightrope between musical landscape and verbal speed. The only place, in fact, where the balance tipped was at the very end, for “The Wild Turkey,” a strange-magic encounter with that bird that seems to hint at transmigrations and purgatories; the music stretched out towards transcendence, but forced the words—on the page both offhand and portentous—untenably towards the latter. It only seemed off because the rest was so light on its feet. It Happens Like This is rigorously breezy entertainment.
This year’s Fromm Concert—Fromm Foundation money still runs annually in New England, kind of like maple sap—featured the New York-based Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. But even with the caffeine jolt of Ho’s Fanfare (it’s opening every concert of the festival), Thursday’s program was a slow starter. Tobias Picker’s 1977 Sextet No. 2 (“Halle’s Ravine”) is an early and curious piece, all stop-and-start sonorities, mobiles of mid-century new-music shards. When, in the second movement, the fragments are injected with a bit more personality—detached chorale leftovers, granite octaves, Romantic violin turns—it hints at a kind of meeting of the minds between Ives and Burroughs’s cut-up technique. But elsewhere, the trail seemed continually blocked.
Jason Eckardt’s Rendition, for bass clarinet (Bill Kalinkos) and piano (Oliver Hagen) started with a terrific quiet rumble; but the piece unfolded prosaically. The title refers to the CIA’s war-on-terror practice of purposefully shifting detainees to regimes with fewer legal scruples concerning torture, and the structure could be read as a dramatic précis: slow and murky, then sharp and violent, then a spare, single-note coda for piano alone. The realization of each section, though, seemed arbitrary, each initial texture simply continued rather than developed. Among much busy music, Eckardt’s daring toward stillness was welcome, but the piece felt more like a first draft than a finished statement.
Terrain, a 2005 violin chamber concerto by Brian Ferneyhough, was the opposite of still, a thorough dose of the composer’s incontinently dense style. The solo violin (Christopher Otto, in a heroically accomplished performance) plays almost constantly, the line all multitasking, obsessively worked virtuosity; the eight-player ensemble layers in their own thickets, abuzz and swarming. The sensation is that of expression both immediate and frustratingly peripheral; the music is, in a way, in limbo between vocabulary and syntax, the complexity demanding that one take in the rush of experience as a whole, the individual parts so intricately detailed that they insist on their own attention. Terrain runs on a bit long, but the rest of the piece is so much about too much that perhaps that’s part of the point: the transcendence of sensory overload, an idea of high Romantic ancestry.
After intermission came another disciple of complexity, Milton Babbitt, the honored exception in a festival otherwise devoted to living composers. But Babbitt was after leaner expression. More Melismata, a late piece (dating from 2006), played with gung-ho expertise by cellist Fred Sherry, is all about compound melody, an initial division into high and low ranges, each range then evolving further hierarchies. The line spins out with unorthodox eloquence, Babbitt working the extremes into well-turned phrases. Next to Ferneyhough, it sounded almost casually courtly. (And—the fruits of a lifetime of composing—More Melismata ends at exactly the right place.)
Electronic music is only rating a couple of spots on this festival, but the first instance was marvelously filled: John Chowning’s 2005 soprano-and-computer Voices. A soprano (Amy Petrongelli, secure in a challenging part, dramatically flamboyant, and vocally bright, if a little diffuse) sings—in golden-ratio temperament—oracular pronunciations (literally; the reference is Pythia, the famed oracle of Delphi) into a reverberation of electronic echoes and transformations. The control and interaction is deftly sophisticated, the voice triggering digital events, the timbres enveloping the voice seamlessly; but much of the fun of Voices is its evinced love of old-fashioned sounds, the sci-fi burbling characteristic of early electronic music, here updated and shiny, but still charmingly otherworldly.
Thursday finished with another commission/premiere, this one from John Zorn: À Rebours, a pocket cello concerto for Sherry and nine players (the TMC-based New Fromm Players, with Lubman conducting). Zorn’s characteristic juxtapositions generated characteristic friction and fury; but, while there were hints of old-fashioned exoticism (rippling harp, Balinese tolling, the beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom—all, perhaps, reminiscent of the tropical scents manipulated in the Huysman novel that provided the concerto’s title), À Rebours conflicts invented gestures rather than borrowed ones. The performance, like the rest, showed precision, go-for-broke extroversion, and—something that hasn’t always been a requirement at the FCM—versatility.
Matthew Guerrieri (who was—full disclosure—a 1999 Tanglewood Music Center Fellow) will be covering the rest of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music for the Boston Globe.