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Harbison Adds Musings on Tanglewood’s Upcoming Contemporary Music Festival


In conversation with BMInt, Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival co-curator John Harbison observed that although a 70th anniversary is not one normally associated with major celebratory events, the idea of having a season that highlights the work of past program directors, faculty, and Fellows had been percolating with Tanglewood management for a while, for a variety of reasons. One was to have a handle by which to extend the TCMF theme through the entire Tanglewood season. There are, he noted, at least as many concerts featuring works by TMC alumni, in the large sense, as there are on the TCMF program itself. This enables Tanglewood to hew more closely, as Harbison put it, to the animating spirit of Serge Koussevitzky of “keeping people in touch with music as it is being written.”

Second, adding an historical perspective to the TCMF and TMC program aids the latter’s educational mission by exposing the Fellows to styles and composers quite different, not only from standard repertoire but from the new-music currents of today. Harbison recounted that several of the Fellows to whom he had assigned works, by such formerly prominent composers as Messiaen and Dallapiccola, had never heard, much less performed, a note of their music. As a further aside, Harbison pointed out that some of the  “older” music associated with TMC, such as the Copland Third Symphony, which relatively speaking might come as a stylistic breather for audiences, is actually very difficult to perform. “Some of these older works,” he said, “push the limits of the performers…. The perspective of the violinist behind the stand is very different from that of the audience.” This being a phone interview, we couldn’t see him smiling when he said that, but we heard it.

We asked about how the three curators (the other two are Gunther Schuller and Oliver Knussen) worked to come up with the programs and the music to be played. Interestingly, the three did not sit down together to work things out. There were composers and works each of them wanted to see on the program, but once that part was settled, and their lists amalgamated, the decisions what would be performed when and by whom were largely in the hands of administrative programming staff, who set things up based to a great degree on prosaic considerations like instrumental compatibility, workload and scheduling of performers. Thus, Harbison emphasized that no single program could be ascribed to one or another of the curators.

While the TCMF often comes across to audiences as being fundamentally about composers, and while the TMC always has its complement of composition students eagerly absorbing all this unfamiliar music (more for expanding consciousness rather than for experimental imitation, Harbison averred), one gets the feeling that the organizers consider it, and the broader TMC, as mostly for the performers. It is, Harbison said, the place where performers who go on to professional careers get to play more contemporary music than they are likely to do at any other time in their professional lives. By the Tanglewood season’s end, there will have been over 100 works played in fulfillment of this year’s theme, exposing performers and audiences to an extraordinarily broad spectrum of musical thought and idiom, to which observation Harbison appended, with another invisible grin, “for better and for worse.”

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.

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