The Tanglewood Fellows along with the New Fromm Players opened the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music in Seiji Ozawa Hall in Lenox last Thursday evening with Harrison Birtwistle’s 2005 piece, Cantus Iambeus. This chamber work coyly draws the listener in with rich harmonies rendered in delicate timbres over which a pointillistic theme coalesces. As the piece progresses, the instrumental timbres solidify and the interior harmonies and rhythms accumulate a forward momentum that draws the listener deeper into its complex textures. While it was sometimes difficult to tell where the piece was going, the ebb and flow toward new heights was always engaging, due in large part to the precise and joyous performance of the ensemble.
Elliott Carter’s Double Trio, composed last year, began with a lyrical, almost romantic theme in the violin and trombone intercut with a jostling figure in the piano, cello, and percussion. These two elements shift relationships throughout the piece, and yet somehow, despite the adequate contrast between them and the committed playing of the Fellows, the Double Trio comes off as dry and dull, as the lyrical deteriorates into the baleful and the aggressive becomes merely petulant.
While Luke Bedford’s choice of texts for his orchestral song cycle Or Voit Tout En Aventure, from 2006, references conflicting aesthetic camps in 14th-century music, his settings of these six poems are seemingly sedate, building drama and tension at a geological pace. The first song kept the slightly strident vocal line front and center, supporting it with dry and reedy chords that slipped in the brief instrumental second movement into a noisy sibilant timbre facilitated by wind machine. Although the text of the third movement was no less cantankerous, soprano Yoongeong Lee rendered it in softer tones bordering on the tender to match the ensemble’s more sensuous, yet slightly sinister, lower register. The penultimate song recaptured the initial stridency, as the ensemble drove forward with a pulsing rhythm that pushed the piece toward the ethereal final song’s caressing and lightly ornamented vocals reminiscent of Late Medieval aesthetics. While the surface stasis of Bedford’s work may seem out of joint with its poetry, in the end, this song cycle is a satisfying testament to the enduring power of a belief in music, regardless of cultural vicissitudes.
Niccolo Castiglioni’s 23 variations on a theme collected under the title Quickly, were in actuality a series of different orchestrations of a set of relatively unchanging motivic material. Nevertheless, the piece, composed in 1994 and making it the oldest one on the program, demonstrated a delightful sense of variety and invention. To begin, a solo violin simply stated the theme, comprised of a slow, angular melody and a short, dance-like tune. For the remainder of the piece, this dual theme was transformed into a dense and rapid figuration and disconnected longer notes that seemed to paraphrase the theme’s lyrical aspect. In the first variation, the woodwinds took off with the figuration that leads to a cadenza-style passage in the piano in the second variation. In the third, the figuration is rendered in the lighter, almost plinky, timbres of harp and harpsichord, turning it into a ghost of its former self. Castiglioni employs this kind of contrast throughout the piece, presenting the figuration, often layered with the sustained motive, in a strong, solid and stable timbre such as full winds, or sparkling glockenspiel, and then nearly repeating the passage in a fragile voice, such as celeste, high piano, or violins. At some junctures, transitions between these contrasting states are facilitated by the resonance of a cymbal, or most strikingly in Variations 8 and 12, through interludes that bring together fragmented gestures. In Variation 8, these small and quiet gestures in the percussion and violin are reminiscent of insects, and in 12, as the piece moves toward its finale, a brass fanfare is broken up by skittering gestures in a “ghost” timbre. Variation 22 gives a more complete fanfare leading to the tutti conclusion in the ﬁnal variation. While the listener’s expectations of theme and variations may be thwarted in this piece, it is well worth giving up preconceptions and joyfully going along for the ride as Castiglioni takes the audience through some surprising territory.
Unfortunately, the final piece, Sean Shepherd’s These Particular Circumstances, was not right for this particular program. The initial ﬂourishes seemed like leftovers from Castiglioni’s variations, but with a slightly softer focus. Throughout the bursts of activity and the multi-layered figuration, the piece, which dates from 2009, seems to do little more than raucously clamor for attention, and, when that failed, to resort to mimicry, specifically “Mercury,” from Holst’s The Planets. Perhaps These Particular Circumstances would have worked better in the first half of the program, but as a closer, it was really too much.