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At 70, Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival Goes Historical


As summer music festivals go, the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival is doubly unique (so to speak). Not only is it a festival within a festival, housed within the larger framework of the BSO-dominated Tanglewood season and the other chamber and orchestral programs of the Tanglewood Music Center, but it is the only summer festival to be devoted to music of the present. To this one may add another distinguishing feature, its association with a summer school of music for the elite among orchestral and chamber musicians and conductors. (It shares this attribute with Marlboro and to an extent Kneisel Hall and the Heifetz Center, but dwarfs these in scope). And this year, the TCMF, in celebration of its 70th season, is embarking on something that for it, is novel: the programming, curated by the all-star trio of composers Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, and Oliver Knussen, will be almost entirely devoted to an historical retrospective of music composed by the program directors, faculty and Fellows of the TMC over its entire lifetime so far, ranging from founding program director Aaron Copland and other 1940s-era faculty stars like Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein, to 21st-century Fellows like Scotland’s Helen Grime.

Like Nanki-poo’s catalogue, that of the TCMF this year is long, “through every passion ranging.” There are eight official TCMF concerts from August 12 through 16, but the underlying historical theme of the festival also has permeated the overall Tanglewood programming: concerts throughout July and up to August 8 have incorporated the illustrious TMC affiliates.

The Festival proper kicks off with a program in Ozawa Hall conducted by Knussen, featuring the BSO’s Principal Double Bass Edwin Barker, in Theodore Antoniou’s Concertino for Double Bass and String Orchestra along with works of George Perle, Gunther Schuller, Bruno Maderna and Paul Hindemith, all former TMC faculty. Subsequent programs in Ozawa Hall include works by Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Lukas Foss, Hans Werner Henze, Andrew McPherson (a former Harbison student at MIT who double-majored in music and electrical engineering), Betsy Jolas, Steve Mackey, Bright Sheng, Yehudi Wyner, Irving Fine, Alexander Goehr, Luciano Berio, Helen Grime, Michael Gandolfi, Olivier Messiaen, Jacob Druckman, Colin Matthews, and Copland, whose epic Third Symphony was largely written at Tanglewood.

The BSO itself gets into the act with a program on August 13 under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya featuring Osvaldo Golijov’s Mariel for cello and orchestra, with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist, along with other works from Latin American composers including Daniel Alomía Robles and Gabriela Lena Frank, whose Illapa features BSO Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe.

The annual Fromm Concert on August 15 features an operatic double bill, Harbison’s Full Moon in March and Knussen’s collaboration with Maurice Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are. On the afternoon of August 15 (a busy day for those of you who want to hear it all! — there are morning, afternoon and evening programs) the BSO includes Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee and Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, with Thomas Martin, clarinet soloist, in a program also featuring Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F (an amazing masterpiece whose subtlety has never been truly appreciated by the supposed cognoscenti) with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, all conducted by Robert Spano. Gershwin, alas, died before the founding of TMC, so we’ll never know if he would have been welcomed or snubbed.

Among the works on the TCMF program that most tickle our fancy and curiosity are George Perle’s 1979 Concertino for Piano, Winds and Tympani, on the opening program (soloists not announced) on August 12; the Golijov on August 13; Steve Mackey’s Gaggle and Flock and Yehudi Wyner’s Passage, both on August 14; the revival of Berio’s circles (so au courant in the ’60s) on the morning program on the 15th, the two operas on that evening’s program and the Matthews and Copland on the final one. Copland’s attempt to write the Great American Symphony, as self-conscious and freighted as it was, nevertheless was not the dud many have assessed it to be. Next to the Ives Fourth, it ranks up there with the best you can think of —the Harris Third, the Thomson First, the Chadwick Second, the Barber First — and for sheer cleverness it has a distinct touch: all the themes are based on the Fanfare for the Common Man that crowns the finale. Robert Spano, who will conduct the TMC orchestra in the Copland and the BSO in the Gershwin concerto (which also uses a motto theme to which all the others are related) is in a position to reclaim, in different ways, two great American classics.

For the 2009 season, after a few years of narrowly chosen programming, it seemed that the TCMF was getting back to its roots with an eclectic menu. This year, it’s ahead to the past with an inward focus on TMC’s history. Why this year, with the 75th anniversary just a few years away, we don’t know, and why the particular works were chosen no one will be able to tell until after hearing them. We hope there is a tie-in to the ongoing teaching work of TMC, and that the audience will be able to take away, after it’s all over, a sense of whether and how the TMC has affected or been affected by the musical and personal influences of its leaders.

Consult the listings here on BMInt, or at for fuller details on each program in the festival.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. TCMF is hardly the “only summer festival to be devoted to music of the present.” The Bang on a Can Summer Festival, which is taking place right now, just 30 miles from Tanglewood, is “dedicated entirely to adventurous contemporary music”, and has been running since 2002.

    Comment by Newmusicista — July 29, 2010 at 10:27 am

  2. Sorry we did not post the Bang On a Can events. It was an oversight.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 29, 2010 at 1:36 pm

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