in: Reviews

July 25, 2010

Insights into Future Musicians: Tanglewood Composition Fellows

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They laughed on a sultry Saturday afternoon (July 24) when I appeared at the door of Ozawa Hall for a concert: of music by the Tanglewood Music Center Composition Fellows in Lenox, MA.

“You’re here to review THIS?” (Or was it, “You’re here to REVIEW this?”) Well why not? This is the music of our future and theirs. In all fairness, however, this concert was the end result of the “Piece-a-Day Project” assigned to the six Composition Fellows by one of the two Resident Artist Composition Faculty members, Michael Gandolfi. The six were required to write one musical work each day for three consecutive days. As Gandolfi wrote in the program sheet, “[W]orking under such tight constraints necessitates a trust in the mining of raw, musical ideas, which, among other virtues, reveals an insight into an aspect of the creative process that is often quite exhilarating, instructive, and reassuring.” And such was the case here.

The six composers are Shawn Brogan Allison, Lembit Beecher, Ruby Fulton, Eric Nathan, Osnat Netzer, and Nicholas Vines, who is the eldest (born in 1976); the youngest was born in 1983. Some are still finishing their doctoral degrees; others live in New York or Boston. Vines is teaching at Harvard and M.I.T., and one of his works was performed by the Callithumpians at the Gardner Museum in January (reviewed here).  All had an opportunity to coach the performers, as did Gandolfi and John Harbison. And probably all will have (or have had) a “real” work performed at Tanglewood this season. I hope that, even though the Project pieces were “just” an assignment, these composers will hang on to and develop the germs of musical ideas generated here. I felt privileged to experience this stage of their blossoming.

We heard 18 pieces in three groups of six, each group presenting the composers in a different order. Each group was performed by two different Tanglewood Fellows. The first group comprised Ryan Yung (clarinet) and Pei-Ling Lin (viola). The compositional problem here is writing for two instruments from different families (wind, string), whose rich mellow sounds lie roughly in the same range. Perhaps because my ear was fresh, I warmed most to these solutions. Fulton’s amped made use of vigorous fortissimo double stops in the viola to provide an even richer texture, topped by short melodies in the clarinet that began and returned to the same pitch. Nathan’s Dreamcatcher focused on unisons, which with only two instruments, and two of such different color, is both difficult and fascinating; there were long phrases in the clarinet of pianississimo that were ravishing. Vines’ Parnell’s Gloom was based on a similar idea, except that the unisons deliberately fell off by quarter-tones, or blue notes, surely performed. Beecher’s Sarabande assigned melodic phrases to the clarinet with various forms of string accompaniment, including pizzicato. Allison entitled all three of his pieces Invention; this one, numbered as the second in the series, was rambling. Yung and Lin gave top-notch performances, and made the difficulties seem easy.

The second “day’s” music was for violin (Joseph Maile) and double bass (Bebo Shiu), both string instruments, but at the highest and lowest ends of the scale. Fulton investigated the possibilities of counterpoint with slowly moving sustained notes in her sensation of wait. Beecher also introduced his Minuet and Barn Dance with imitative entries. Netzer’s Not Shy explored various string techniques in a fragmentary manner. Vines’ O’Connell’s Pig was almost descriptive: gentle rollicking, punctuated by percussive pig sounds in the double bass. Allison’s Invention III, was again rambling, while Nathan’s Fragment made heavy use of harmonics and pizzicato in both instruments. Maile had a tough time making his highest harmonics audible in this last piece, but otherwise both performers solved their various challenges brilliantly.

The third group featured two instruments of two different families (wind and string again), but in the penultimate ranges of each: flute (Marie Tachouet) and cello (Kathryn Bates Williams). Both of these fine performers are among this season’s seven New Fromm Players, as are the violinist, Joseph Maile and the violist Pei-Ling Lin. Here the composers seemed to have been less interested in exploring the instruments themselves, but rather in solving the compositional problems of form: beginnings and endings, generating impulse and continuity. Their titles were quite descriptive of their solutions: Shifts (Nathan); slow suicide (Fulton); Obsessive Folksing (Netzer); Twitch (Beecher); and Jury’s Din (Vines). Allison’s Invention I made much use of matching pitches and pitch classes, including some use of the cello’s harmonics.

So watch for these composers and performers to come your way. They have a strong voice, and know how to achieve its expression.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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