in: Reviews

August 16, 2010

TFCM Three: Bubbling Energy, Spare Textures, Cultural Evocations

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The third concert of the Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music was presented on Saturday, Aug. 14th at 2:30 p.m. By now one begins to marvel at the stamina and sustained musical expertise of some of the student players who have appeared on more than one program, and several more than once during the same program.

A Tanglewood Composition Fellow in 2007, Andrew McPherson (b. 1982) is the youngest composer whose works are being heard this year. With degrees in both electrical engineering (M.I.T.) and composition (Ph.D., 2009, University of Pennsylvania), he is currently a Computing Innovation Fellow (awards from the Computing Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation), for research on “understanding and shaping creative musical expression through computing.” He has developed a magnetic resonator piano, essentially a hybrid acoustic-electronic instrument for which the first piece on Saturday’s program was written: his Secrets of Antikythera (2009), in nine movements. A version exists for “normal” (acoustic) piano, of which we heard four excerpts: “Conception,” “Creation 1,” “Creation 2,” and “Vision Fulfilled.” The Antikythera was an ancient device for plotting the position of the planets, and the piece reflects the composer’s conception of the anonymous inventor’s excitement about the project. It is essentially about generative and bubbling energy—in the context of the piano, reflected in the power of the repeated note. Ryan McCullough was the piano virtuoso here, although his over pedaling often obscured the sparkling heavens.

Steven Mackey’s Gaggle and Flock (2001), two separate pieces for double string quartet, was written for the Borromeo and Brentano String Quartets, their places taken here by Terna Watstein and Amy Galluzzo, violins, Derek Mosloff, viola, and Agnes Kally, cello (Quartet I); Alex Shiozaki and Justine Lamb-Budge, violins, Jocelin Pan, viola, and Nataliya Pschenychna, cello (Quartet II). Mackey’s idea is to represent or replicate the close interdependence of birds flying in formation, thereby creating a complex and difficult work for the players—surprisingly not for the listener, who easily absorbs the cross-rhythms, the use of fragmentary, seemingly familiar melodies, and repetitive rhythmic patterns (in “Gaggle”), and the more sonorous, longer emphatic falling lines of “Flock.”

Although the American première of Betsy Jolas’s Quatour VI avec clarinette” (1997) had been announced, illness prevented its performance, and instead there were three selections from Augusta Read Thomas’s Traces for solo piano (2006), previously reviewed during its performance here in its entirety on Sunday, August 1. Pianist Makiko Hirata has a well-advanced technique and also the ability to represent the music dramatically without exaggeration; and the performance was warmly applauded by the large, attentive audience.

Bright Sheng’s Three Fanatasies (2006) for violin (Joseph Maile) and piano (Nolan Pearson) are a composite of three separate stimuli (“Dream Song,” “Tibetan Air,” and “Kazakhstan Love Song.”) Sheng’s spare and open textures provided a welcome contrast to the more dense music that had gone before. That is not to say this music is airy: the “Tibetan Air” becomes dense simply from the piano and violin roaming in their lower ranges. All three sections benefit from complex counterpoint. These two New From Players performed with the quiet competence that seems to be their trademark; Nolan Pearson must be indefatigable, as he performs in almost every concert.

Yehudi Wyner’s Passage (1983) concluded this concert. Although there is no vocalist, this work is essentially all about relaxed singing—that was my take even before looking at the composer’s notes, which specifically say the piece “deals with vernacular elements, with utterly familiar musical material. . . reminiscent of American popular music of years ago…. It might not be misleading to compare Passage with an ostensibly bland street scene by Edward Hopper….” It is written for an ensemble of flute (Benjamin Smilen), clarinet (Daniel Goldman), trumpet (David Cohen), violin (Ruth Bacon), viola (Mattthew Davies), cello (Julia Biber), and piano (Nana Shi), conducted in slow 4/4 by composer and Festival co-director John Harbison. Thus ended a concert with a wide variety of aesthetics, shaped by its arch form to a coherent whole, and for this our gratitude to the program planners.

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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