The works performed at the final concert of the Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music on Monday, August 16, were all for large orchestra save one: the American première of What Are Years by the indefatigable Elliott Carter. Now 101, he should, and does, have some answers to that question. This song cycle, completed this year as a co-commission from the Tanglewood Music Center and the Aldeburgh Festival, is based on five poems by the so-called modernist, Marianne Moore (1887-1972). Scored for soprano, flute (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English Horn, bass clarinet (doubling Bb contrabass clarinet), 2 bassoons, and 2 percussionists using a wide variety of instruments, harp, and strings (2 of each), it was conducted by Oliver Knussen. The title is that of the fifth poem, the others being “Like a Bulwark,” “That Harp You Play So Well,” “The Being So-Called Human,” and “To an Intra-Mural Rat” — the last, a brief ironic moment that ends almost before it begins. Marianne Moore’s poetry is strong stuff, and Carter has characteristically responded in the same vein: clearly we were in the hands of two master creators. Soprano Sarah Joanne Davis was skillful, forceful, yet sensitive to her well-enunciated texts, and her voice was perfect for the piece. Carter has written her part so that, unlike some of the other works heard this week at the Festival, her voice is never overcome by the instruments; its texture remains clear and transparent, engaged in difficult but sonorous contrapuntal lines. I wanted to hear it again, right away.
The two works for large orchestra in the first half of the program were Aureole (1979), by Jacob Druckman, and the American première of Turning Point (2006), a 20-minute work by the English composer Colin Matthews, commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As the title suggests might be the case, Aureole gives the impression of radiating concentric circles of sound, but unremittingly loud sounds due in part to the unusually large battery of percussion and eight double basses. It was vigorously conducted by Keitaro Harada. Frank Oteri’s notes were at hand to provide a “road-map” through the piece, although the listener could scarcely hear these distinctions. In spite of the difference of nearly 30 years, Turning Point, conducted by Cristian Macelaru, was much the same—loud, and hugely dissonant, with a driving beat in some sections, and changing meters. At the “turning point,” a kind of chorale led to a blessedly quiet ending, which the composer describes as “expressive simplicity.”
After intermission the Carter was paired with Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (1946). There could not have been a more appropriate way to end this Festival that looked back at major creative contributors to the Tanglewood Music Center, the more especially because the last movement quotes his earlier (1942) Fanfare for the Common Man in its entirety. I’m quite sure everyone in the hall wanted either to cry or melt, or both, not only for the significance of this work in this location, and Copland’s incredible vast, open sound (from the pairing and spacing of instruments) and his manner of stretching out lines, but also for the splendid performance of the student orchestra energetically conducted by guest artist Robert Spano. This is surely an experience that will carry those students until they return next year, and well beyond.
I was not able to attend the panel discussion preceding this concert concerning the programming and history of the Festival, conducted by co-Festival directors John Harbison and Oliver Knussen with BSO program book editor and writer Robert Kirzinger. (The third co-director, Gunther Schuller, was not present at the Festival due to its conflict with the Edinburgh Festival where he was conducting.) As I understand it, the pieces were chosen by the three co-directors well in advance, but the programming of them was determined by the administrators of the Tanglewood Music Center. In general, except for the juxtaposition of the Druckman and Mathews pieces on this concert (but what other choice did they have?), their decisions worked well, and each concert was its own jewel.
The quality of performances, not only from the New Fromm Players but from all the many students who played at these concerts, was uniformly extremely high. There were absolutely no intonation problems, no bleats from the horns. The coming together of these musicians from all over the world is extraordinary, and their intense training exemplary. They all speak of the dedication and patience of their teachers in introducing them to this music that many of them have never heard before, much less played. Their overall enthusiasm for making music of this caliber is contagious and bodes well for the music of our future.