in: Reviews

August 17, 2012

TFCM Finale: Familiar Composers, Different Music


The final concert of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music on Monday evening, August 13th, was the strongest of the season. Three conductors, Stefan Asbury, Alexandre Bloch, and Oliver Knussen, took to the stage for six works by composers we had heard earlier in the week, so the audience had the opportunity to hear familiar composers under familiar conductors; but in fact these were very different works, as were conducting styles.

Sonance Severance 2000 (1999), by Harrison Birtwhistle, was like a short coda (two and one half minutes), except that it became the opener. The low, sonorous bass instruments (brass, strings, percussion) predominated in waves for a few moments, culminating in two single trumpet notes. Pretty weak stuff, even with a doubly meaningful title: “Severance” refers to John Long Severance, the industrialist who in 1931 financed the Cleveland Orchestra’s concert hall that bears his name; it reopened in 2000, the event for which this was written, and therefore perhaps appropriate. It was conducted by the Festival’s director, Oliver Knussen, who was represented either as composer or as conductor in the first position on every program.

On the other hand, the music of the youngest composer in the Festival, the British Helen Grime (b. 1979) is beautifully crafted. Everyone Sang is the title of a remarkable poem by Siegfried Sassoon written at the end of World War I, strangely enough expressing joy at the end of such devastation. I quote the 10 lines in full—only two were in the program—the need to find the complete poem became urgent:

Everyone suddenly burst into singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards; dark green fields; on- on- and out of sight.


Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Written in 2010 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the BBC’s Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Grime’s work opened in the high strings first and then gradually shifted to low strings and percussion. Next, the reverse: a section with low strings pizzicato with high strings playing long vibrato phrases. These were long, almost choral phrases. The situation was then reversed: high strings pizzicato and low strings playing long vibrato phrases, ending with percussion. The work was enthusiastically conducted by Stefan Asbury, recently appointed resident conductor with the Noord Nederlands Orkest, and otherwise much in demand as a guest conductor worldwide.

Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, commissioned for this year’s Festival with support from the New Works Fund, premiered there in July and was reviewed here. The commission included generosities (a large orchestra) and limitations (10 minutes). As the title might suggest, it is indeed the product of a specific dream that came to Schuller, and it is worth quoting a bit from his own program note about the piece:

[V]irtually the entire work . . . was presented to me in a dream, not just little bits of it, but ranging from its overall form and conception to an amazing amount of specific detail. Even more astonishing to me was that my dream forced me to write/composer some things that I had never done before and would in all likelihood never do on my own, so to speak, without my dream. These were particular rhythmic/technical/structural matters as well as for me never previously attempted unusual multi-polyphonic layerings.

The dream further mandated three movements: Scherzo umoristico e curioso, Nocturne, and Birth—Evolution—Culmination. The first movement was a full and loud at a moderate tempo—the “umoristico” (humoristic) and “curioso” (curious) being provided by one of the four clarinetists who suddenly stood up and shouted a phrase I couldn’t make out. The Nocturne was mostly a low growl throughout, as the dream specified. The dream directed the third movement to be something about Genesis. As Schuller noted, “So, what you will hear tonight is what the dream composed for me, what it made me compose.”And he did it in three-and-a-half weeks.

Following intermission we heard George Benjamin’s Duet for piano and orchestra, commissioned by Roche in 2008. It was performed here by Peter Serkin and a greatly emaciated orchestra. Benjamin writes (in SFist, Jan. 6, 2010) that it really is the anti-concerto as it sounds. Peter Serkin seemed to be trying his best almost to destroy the piano with harsh, hammered fingers that blended with the attacks of the brass and percussion sounds, while the orchestra attempted to imitate the sound of the piano. The composer writes that it is not a virtuoso piece at all. Indeed, it is far from ugly—many rich sonorities emerged—although Serkin was exhausted as he stood up from the piano, his fingers shaking. Benjamin (b. 1940) studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and piano with Yvonne Loriod, although he claims to have rejected Messiaen’s tradition of rich sounds to start a new tradition. Nevertheless Benjamin’s sounds are in fact rich, scintillating, and all together spellbinding, holding the listener closely.

Benjamin mentored the next composer on the program, Luke Bedford (b. 1978)—they are both British. Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky (2006), commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 2007, was here richly conducted as the score requires by a French Tanglewood student fellow, Alexandre Bloch. Although the work is short (six minutes), it carries a huge referential burden for Bedford, both to Schoenberg’s French Klangfarbenmelodie, or in this case, Klangfarbenharmonie (colorful harmony), and to a neurotic British novel, The White Hotel, by D M. Thomas (a pseudonym for Leslie Epstein, who directs the Creative Writing Program at Boston University). Outblaze the Sky builds on a single chord creating long, shifting lines with almost vocal timbres—could it be that the violas are the highest ranges?—and ends on one full, rich iteration of the chord.

The Festival ended with the one of the Child Alice pieces by David Del Tredici that is fully instrumental: “Happy Voices,” the 20-minute instrumental interlude between the two main vocal sections. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned and premiered it in 1980. For a concert performance such as this one, Michael Tilson Thomas then suggested a Concert-Finale, which was added in 1984; it causes the piece to end with a lot of percussion and pizzicato instrumentation. For Del Tredici the “Voices” represent the “stories told during those happy summer days that did not get written down.” The work is generally loud, with brass interruptions: long but unrelated sections, as though the children were finally given a chance to speak on their own in a jumble. In any case, an appropriate ending to the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood as well.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in Boston .


  1. Are you quite sure of the Epstein/Thomas identification? Hasty online research suggests that D M Tomas is a real person, distinct from Mr. Epstein …

    Comment by brent — August 29, 2012 at 11:02 pm

  2. Good catch, and sorry for the delay in acknowledging it. D M Tomas may be a real person, but Donald Michael Thomas is the author of The White Hotel. I am afraid I may have leapt to an erroneous conclusion about the author’s identity from circumstantial evidence. I do apologize to you and to all our readers.

    Comment by Mary Wallace Davidson — September 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm

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