As Vance Koven has written elsewhere in these pages, this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is a celebration of the 70 years’ existence of the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC)—not only as a celebration, but also as a means of introducing the music of many 20th-century composers to current Tanglewood students who may never have performed it. All the works were chosen by the three co-directors this year, John Harbison, Oliver Knussen, and Gunther Schuller.
The opening concert on Thursday, August 12, presented five works spanning the years 1922 (just for good measure) to 2000. That early work, Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, for piano and ensemble, has nothing to do with Tanglewood, except that Hindemith himself was on the faculty the first year (1940) of the Center. Written for solo piano and an instrumental ensemble of winds and strings (one on a part, and two clarinet parts), it exemplifies a prolific period in Hindemith’s life when he was melding late Romanticism and the earlier disciplines of stricter forms, as for example the piano’s cancrizans (crab canons) in the fourth movement. It is a peculiar piece, however—one wonders whether he knew how to end such things as a long piano solo, or even a movement, and definitely a strange way to end this concert. It was ably conducted by Alexander Prior, and the difficult piano passages performed with ease by Fromm Player Nolan Pearson.
The concert began with George Perle’s Concertino for piano, winds, and timpani (1979), conducted by Cristian Macelaru, and the piano solo miraculously performed from memory by William McNally. This one-movement work is full of rhapsodic solos, contrasted with sometimes busy, sometimes rollicking phrases, emerging from rich harmonies. In some sections there are repetitive melodic and rhythmic shapes that create a persistent tactus, interrupted by long arching shapes just before the regularity bothers. Frank Oteri’s excellent program notes for this one work provide more detailed analysis — the remaining excellent notes in the Festival program are by Robert Kirzinger. The performance welcomed us with splendid clarity among the well-tuned winds, and set a high standard of what was yet to come.
A second Concertino followed, this one for Contrabass with Orchestra (2000) by Theodore Antoniou, conducted gracefully by Keitaro Harada; the able soloist was TMC faculty member and the Boston Symphony’s principal contrabassist Edwin Barker, for whom it was written. A work in three movements (fast-slow-fast), it is generally freeform, while observing some traditional features of the solo concerto. The orchestra is without clarinets, trombones, or percussion, and again makes frequent use of repeated rhythmic patterns. Antoniou makes sustained use of pizzicato, featuring left-hand finger slides as the right hand strums. This factor, plus similar bowed harmonics in all the strings simultaneously provide striking textures. The conductor used his body well, especially in changing, hemiola-like rhythms.
Gunther Schuller’s Tre Invenzioni was commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the Fromm Music Foundation, early sponsors of the Festival, and premiered in 1972. The score specifies five differently constituted quintets of wind, harps, and keyboard instruments (no strings), separated “as widely as possible without losing contact and jeopardizing ensembles.” Its three movements bear Baroque titles, two of which (Capriccio and Toccata) immediately suggest freely flowing movement—in the Toccata, for example, many starts and stops, sections for keyboards followed by solos. Oliver Knussen as conductor brought all this together masterfully.
Bruno Maderna’s Il giardino religioso (1972) was commissioned for the same occasion, and similarly makes use of spatial positioning, but to very different purpose and effect. Like a Noah’s Ark, there are two of each instrument (brass, percussion, harp, pianos, and strings) disposed with one on each side of the stage: the harps and keyboards in front, the strings in a symmetrical arc behind them, and the brasses in pairs at the rear. The music is composed in fragmentary blocks, or cells, whose performance order the conductor, in this case Oliver Knussen, controls—and here he also occasionally played a percussion or keyboard instrument. The one-movement work itself is magical, beginning very, very softly with brief high outbursts in the strings, then joined by the harps, and continuing to add instruments, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shimmering. Maderna was born in Venice in 1920, and is known mostly for his teaching at Darmstadt in the years following World War II. He also taught at the TMC in 1971 and 1972, just before his untimely death in 1973. Would that there had been more of this beautiful music, here performed with such assurance and élan.