in: News & Features

August 25, 2012

TFCM Is All About Immersion

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As a follow up to the six excellent reviews BMInt staff writers submitted on the recently concluded  Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (links are at the end of the article), this overview summarizes the importance of the Festival: its main themes; the information gained about composers, players, construction of pieces; and primarily, the sense of discovery evoked by the Festival.

Simply put, attending TFCM is a most rewarding way to spend five days at Tanglewood. It should be on music lovers’ “must do lists.”

The audience at the Sunday morning concert of Fromm Fellows and guests. (Nicholas Anagnostis photo)

A major part of TFCM’s charm is the setting, Seiji Ozawa Hall, a comfortable-feeling, attractive space with good sightlines and good acoustics. It invites collegiality — abundant at this festival. A second appeal is the variety of instrumentation of the performing groups — this year, starting with the opening concert employing the 20th-century gift of the “Pierrot ensemble” and then offering solo piano, piano and voice, trios, quartets (some with unusual combinations of instruments), “double trio,” chamber orchestras, full orchestras, and an opera — a total of 26 pieces by 14 composers, in addition to the 15 short pieces by Ives.

Presenting several works by the same composers not only allowed comparisons but also made converts to composers not previously known. Yet another, very major, attraction of TFCM is the performance quality of the current Fellows, who radiate enthusiasm; it is heartening to recognize that we are hearing them as they start out in what will be stellar professional careers and to learn which of the young performers of previous years have been elevated to Fromm Fellows. A number of composers represented in this year’s TFCM who are now well-known were, in fact, Tanglewood Fellows in their time: Marti Epstein, Helen Grime, Oliver Knussen, Sean Shepherd, and David Del Tredici.

The rewards of attending do not stop with these. The fine program notes (given out in a free 56-page pamphlet), were written primarily by the BSO’s Director of Program Publications Robert Kirzinger, in his easy, fact-filled yet eminently readable style. Same with the information and the perceptions from fellow program writers Christian Carey, Claudia Carrera (last year’s Publications Fellow), and Jan Swafford. Their essays go into more detail than one usually finds about each work of a composer: how it fits in with his or her œuvre and how the composer uses music elements and other influences. Perceptions gleaned from these program notes are invaluable, especially as some of the composers, being still with us, were able to add their thoughts. (If the BSO has a boxful or so of these pamphlets left over, perhaps it will offer them for sale?) Last, the price of each concert — $11 — is ridiculously modest.

An obvious comparison for the five-day festival is with the biennial Early Music Festival in Boston, another icon in the classical music world. But whereas BEMF’s primary emphasis in on the performing groups, TFCM’s is on the emerging professionals and the composers. Also, the number of concerts is manageable; BEMF offers so much that attendees cannot help ruing, at the end of the festival, that they were unable to be at two, even three, places at the same time. (Needless to say, Bostonians are indeed lucky to have both these Festivals, at conveniently different ends of the summer.)

Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin from August 13 (Hilary Scott photo)

Selections of materials and organization into separate programs for the various TFCM concerts were made by this year’s guest director, British composer Oliver Knussen. Originally, an idea was proposed that there be three directors, the other two being John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi; so a rumor of some discord rumbled subterraneously, like a mole, early in the session. But the facts are that it quickly became clear to TFCM planners that it would be appropriate to honor Knussen on his 60th birthday by allowing him exclusively to choose the festival composers and programs. Also, by far the more common practice for the Festival has been to have a single person running it. At any event, both Harbison and Gandolfi were there, basking in the collegiality and chatting with everyone.

The resulting collection of composers represented may not have had as many Americans as the other two were rumored to have desired, but one could hardly quibble with the composers that were heard or the felicitous way the pieces for each program were selected. On the other hand, criticism has been voiced that the Festival sometimes becomes a mutual admiration society, where virtually the same composers “scratch each others’ backs.” TFCM organizers surely are aware of that possibility. Knussen, Schuller, Carter, Grime, Harbison, Ives, and Birtwistle have indeed been heard in other festivals, but composers heard this year for the first time included former Tanglewood Composition Fellows Marti Epstein (one piece) and Sean Shepherd (two pieces), British rising star Luke Bedford (two pieces), the late Italian Niccolò Castigiloni (three pieces), George Benjamin (three pieces), Bernard Rands (one piece), Esa-Pekka Salonen (one piece; although this was his first work played at TFCM, he has been heard in the BSO’s regular subscription series); and David Del Tredici (with two pieces, one his very first, the other from 1980). (Retired Professor of Music Laurence E. Berman, who was at the Sunday concerts, heard his former Harvard colleague Del Tredici debut the early piece in Harvard’s Quincy House, back in 1958.)

“Castlglioni was a real discovery for me,” said Steven Ledbetter, a BMInt reviewer who wrote many program notes for the BSO. “I had not heard his music. I loved the two pieces I heard [Tropi and Inverno In-Ver; he missed the joyful, inventive Quickly]. I also want to hear more of Benjamin’s music!” Ledbetter found Del Tredici’s Happy Voices “beautifully orchestrated,” adding, “I did want to like his music because I like him.” And he noted of the solo piano recital of Gloria Cheng “I really liked the way Cheng pulled that Los Angeles theme, and yet provided all different composers, patrons, artists. That was fun.”

The performance by Cheng, a visiting artist, was one of the high points of the Festival. Christian Carey noted in his program notes that she is “a flexible artist: not one who feels hidebound” by constraints. Cheng herself wrote that she chose to play works “to honor Los Angeles and to illuminate its links to many of the composers who are here at Tanglewood this summer, . . .  This recital is a tremendously personal effort of homage and remembrance for me, and I think it would make a difference if the audience could be aware of it.” Sounds as if this were a request she made to organizers and they asked if they could quote it, a good decision, as it points out how meaningful performance depends so often on emotional input. Her amazing touch and interpretation was so appropriate to each of the wildly varying compositions she chose to play. The final programmed piece, Esa Pekka Salonen’s Organisme, in two long movements, ended with a phenomenal barrage of notes, “a rousing fortissimo flurry,” Carey wrote, “followed by a sotto voce gesture… a most ambitious end to an already ambitious program.” Amen. (This writer wondered why Salonen quit his conducting post to devote his time to composing. There are no notes left.)

Then Cheng surprised the audience with a world premiere of Conversations, by John Williams, who unbeknownst to almost everyone, was at the back of the hall. The delightful piece, and the spontaneity in which it was offered, again was a highpoint of that concert.

Four of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s works were played: Cantus Iambeus a large chamber-music piece with essentially the “Pierrot ensemble” orchestration, Her Tango for solo piano, Nick and Dinah’s Love Song with a harp and three oboes (one on stage and two placed antiphonally — and very effectively — in the balcony of Ozawa Hall), and Sonance Severance 2000, a short piece for a very large orchestra (80 or more?). Yet these pieces, Kirzinger’s notes informed us, are “quite different but together barely scratching the surface of his aesthetic.” So we have many to hear and much to learn; count this composer’s work also among the Festival’s revelations.

Stephen Asbury leads Knussen’s Higgelty Pigglety Pop (Hilary Scott photo)

Not all the TFCM programs left the audience wildly ecstatic, though Fellows in the audience could be counted on to whoop and holler appreciation for the performances of their colleagues. More power to them; their enthusiasm is the way to go. To this attendee, who heard all but one concert, there was something to love in every one, though a couple of pieces were downright boring, and the Del Tredici, Happy Voices (Child Alice Part II), the closing piece of the festival, although fascinating for its instrumentation, was just plain too loud — at least, for Ozawa Hall. A cheery melody from the reeds at the onset was followed by an fff screech, and the piece continued to get louder as it progressed.  (It did provide a good opportunity to use most, if not all, of this year’s Fellows.)

What wasn’t to love about Castiglioni’s icy imagery of Inverno In-Ver?, performed along with Knussen’s Higglety Pigglety Pop!, or, There Must Be More to Life, on that Sunday evening? Or Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, with its first-movement amusing use of phrases from “Dance of the Mirlitons” from Tchakovsky’s Nutcracker, and the long, sustained multiple-note chord that was the epitome of what Schuller wishes to achieve in all his music: “the beauty of dissonance”? Or Helen Grime’s Seven Pierrot Miniatures,” from a composer whom Kirzinger credits with “vibrant, deftly crafted, and immediately communicative works?”

The audience for TFCM indeed does include many students not playing in the particular concert on deck; but there also are a host of other musicians and composers, some whose works are being played, and some not; scores of aficionados — many, but by far not all, white-haired; and some with other affiliations, like sponsors of Fellowships. Harriet Eckstein and her husband endowed a Composition Fellowship a number of years ago. She regularly attends the annual TFCM. “Very early on,” she noted at one of the concerts, “there seemed to be fewer women; I am glad to see that has changed.” (Among former recipients of the Otto Eckstein Fellowship are Augusta Read Thomas and Marti Epstein.) “I want to help make people eager about things they have not heard before, instead of shunning it,” Eckstein stated. “I mean, between what is in people’s comfort zone and what is new. I am 78, but I do not go to concerts that are ‘more of the same.’”

Ranne P. Warner, a real estate developer and a friend and former Boston neighbor, has been attending the entire five days of the Festival with her husband for the last six years. “For 35 years or so, I attended the BSO and went through the process of being introduced to some modern piece by Seiji, and what I found was it was very hard to develop a real appreciation when one was sandwiched in between, say, Beethoven and some other classic… and while I didn’t dislike whatever modern piece was being played, I just didn’t appreciate it.”

The Warners have been coming to the Berkshires for some time now. After the first year that Warner attended the entire Contemporary Festival, she became a convert. “I also realized there are very talented young people playing this very, very difficult music. … It’s a great opportunity for anyone that can get there. But most important is attending the entire festival; it is the immersion.”

George Benjamin, composer of Piano Figures, with pianist Ryan MacEvoy (Nicholas Anagnostis photo)

Perhaps the BSO could use the philosophies of these two ladies to think about a more adventurous approach in programming in the regular season. In single concerts the BSO has performed chamber-sized opening works followed by pieces with full orchestra, so that format is not without precedent. But instead of Bach or Haydn for smaller ensembles, a number of pieces heard at this year’s TFCM would be highly appropriate to introduce the Boston BSO audience to more contemporary music using the felicitous Pierrot ensemble or varieties thereof, in pieces like Castiglioni’s delightful, joyous Quickly, with its augmented Pierrot-ensemble orchestration, that even includes an opening solo violin part (for Malcolm Lowe)? How about Grime’s Virga, which though not heard at this year’s TFCM, has been played by orchestras all around Europe? How about a work from George Benjamin’s œuvre, to move him from the Shed to the Big Top?

Links to the six BMInt reviews follow.

Contemporary Music Giants at First TFCM Concert August 9
Contrasts and Complicated Moods
, August 10
One Icon  Illuminates Another , August 11
Knussen Chose Composers of Various Styles and Ages , August 12
TFCM Finale: Familiar Composers, Different Music August 13
Olly’s Opera and Castiglioni’s Icy Winter  August 13 evening

Bettina A. Norton, executive editor of the Intelligencer, will this fall, for the third year, be leading a course, “Revelations,” for Beacon Hill Seminars . Participants will attend six concerts by less well-known Boston groups; a two-hour class meeting the Wednesday morning preceding each concert will include guest lecturers. This year, they include so far Mark DeVoto, Jeremy Eichler, Robert Kirzinger, Steven Ledbetter, Scott Metcalfe, Gil Rose, Lloyd Schwartz, and Christoph Wolff.

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