IN: Reviews

FCM and BSO: Beautiful Brevity


The Festival of Contemporary Music last Friday at Tanglewood offered up 15 brief, brand-new pieces by the Composition Fellows, and at the Shed the BSO gave enjoyable performances of repertory that is as standard as it gets, plus some folk songs expertly gussied up by Aaron Copland and delivered with poise, aplomb and even humor by Thomas Hampson. It made for a relaxing day.

The FCM afternoon concert presented works from the Fellows’ Piece-a-Day project. At the beginning of the project, the composers start their day at 10 a.m. They are given an ensemble of instruments to write a piece for, which must be completed in the next 24 hours. Then they present the piece, and are given a second ensemble, for a second piece. This is repeated one last time. After the three pieces are written, an additional day is dedicated to revisions, and then the pieces are done. John Harbison in his program note says that Piece-a-Day is “at least eight years old,” but this is the first time the results have been presented at the Festival. They were performed, of course, by Tanglewood Music Center Fellows. There was also an “animal, vegetable, mineral” theme to each day’s pieces. The ensembles were all duos of string and wind instruments: the “animal” pieces were for bass and trombone, performed by Alanna Jones and Zachary Guiles; violin and bassoon were “vegetable,” realized by Samuel Weiser and Shelly Li; and Linda Numagami and Rachelle Jenkins played viola and horn for the “mineral.” The small forces and unusual combinations encouraged the composers to experiment with the potentials of the instruments, almost to the point of cruelty. Guiles was asked to play almost his entire suite of five pieces at the extreme high end of the trombone’s range, and Li had to place a rag in the end of her bassoon, making it visibly more laborious to play. The string players made all manner of sound as well, from airy passages sounding like all harmonics to Bartok pizzicatos snapping on finger boards. All of the instrumentalists acquitted themselves well, giving color and personality to each work and tackling the technical challenges with confidence.

As the pieces were brief, the concert was over in less than an hour, which places some limits on what one can reasonably say about them. But at the risk of overprojecting based on a small set of atypical works, there are voices and personalities to be discerned in these young composers, whose ages ran from 20 to 32. Yi Yiing Chen, of Taipei, seemed eager to cram many ideas into each small piece, and used a straightforward, tonal language. That gave all of her pieces (“Crane,” “Seaweed,” “Mercury”) an ingratiating surface, sounding like a less spiky Stravinsky, or midperiod Britten with a more mercurial streak. By contrast, Arne Gieshoff, from Mainz, Germany, was frankly experimental: his pieces were often fragmented from moment to moment, but each had a strong individual profile: “Pig” alternated distant melancholy with present threat, “Cinnabaris II” was restless and distracted, while the bow sounds and high harmonics of “Asparagus (white)” barely disturbed the silence. Andrew Hsu, of Fremont, California, was harder to pin down: “Tarsier (or Slightly Larger Than the Pygmy Mouse Lemur)” was an etude in simultaneous movement, but “Raw Artichoke” sounded like a fragment of any of a hundred other contemporary pieces, with aperiodic rhythm and wide leaping broken motives. “Lead Violence” earned its name, making the most of the visceral potentials of the horn and ending with the violist adding a scream to the final chord. David Hertzberg, from Los Angeles, had perhaps the subtlest pieces: “canto della civetta” used varying ostinatos on the bass to color the long high lines of the trombone, “canto della barbabietola” was the one that put the rag in the bassoon, also a practice mute on the violin, to create a texture so fragile as to barely exist; and “canticum cadmium” saw music appear from a distance, restless and anxious to conclude. Elizabeth Kelly may have been most comfortable with the demands of the form, however: her “Elephantine Passion” used flutter-tonguing and sliding to evoke an elephant’s recitative, deadly serious, never playing for laughs, still entertaining. “Steamed Broccoli: Sublime Marriage of Vegetable and Water” was a beautifully companionable conversation that allowed the players to be accommodating without losing their independence. Her most experimental effort, “Fool’s Gold,” had the viola frantically rolling out harmonics, a quiet sound that implied immense volume at a distance, with a hint of electric guitar timbre, while the horn played majestic Wagnerian lines aggressively punctuated.

It was a pleasure to listen to these works, even if it is unlikely any will be played again. I’d love to attend a concert like this every month in Boston, during the concert season, in a venue that serves drinks. If it were as popular as this concert was, however, there would be no place to stage it—Ozawa Hall was surprisingly filled.

TMC Composition Fellows and performers (Hilary Scott photo)
TMC Composition Fellows and performers (Hilary Scott photo)

And Later in the Shed…

English conductor Edward Gardner was called upon to replace Christoph von Dohnanyi (family illness) in Friday’s crowd-pleaser of Strauss, Copland and Beethoven. Gardner has had extensive success in Europe: appointed music director of the English National Opera in 2007, he was recently named chief conductor of the Bergen Symphony. A trim and athletic presence, this evening he showed strengths in creation of rich sonorities of massed forces, an ability to structure and produce majesty. In the opening work, Till Eulenspiegel, and the concluding work, Beethoven’s Seventh, the big moments were the best, fanfares and processionals in Strauss, and the great grinding passages of the slow movement of the Beethoven. While a master of contrast—the pianissimo of that same slow movement made you hold your breath—drama was missing. Till never threatened to make anyone laugh, and the gallows scene was noisy but tame. Gardner’s approach to the last movement of the Seventh was fast and loud and full of incident. I found it tiring and lacking in variety, but its surface excited, and Gardner knows how to stick his landings: the Shed erupted as he brought it to a close.

Thomas Hampson echoed by Edward Gardner (Hilary Scott photo)
Thomas Hampson echoed by Edward Gardner (Hilary Scott photo)

In between, Thomas Hampson sang six of Aaron Copland’s Old American Song settings. Hampson certainly brings the drama—when he raises his eyebrows on the stage of the Shed, someone in Pittsfield suddenly thinks they’re being watched—and the BSO and Gardner did excellent work realizing the distinctive colors of Copland’s orchestration. The songs described a fast-slow-fast progression. “The Dodger” began quickly, but was followed by “Long, Long Ago,” “Simple Gifts” (which moves along but in this realization has a profound sense of calm and rest at its heart), and “The Little Horses,” closing with “The Golden Willow” and “The Boatmen’s Dance.” Hampson commanded with his voice and with his presence; he can italicize simply by opening his arms. He was not above distorting vowels into a kind of country drawl when he thought the voice of the song demanded it; my seatmate found this tasteless, but I felt it highlighted the tension between the aestheticized settings and the frequently rough and ready originals. Gardner and the orchestra uncovered some especially lovely moments: the rising figure that follows the rapid music in “Pretty Horses,” for example, was supple, precise, clear and strong, and you yearned for it to return as soon as it sounded. But conductor and singer weren’t fully in tune with each other, the Gardner’s rubato not quite aligned with Hampson’s. This was no big loss in a rollicking song like “The Dodger,” but was a significant problem in “Simple Gifts,” where Copland’s precisely displaced attacks in the orchestra demand rhythmic precision to land properly.

Ending with “The Boatmen’s Dance” represented a small stroke of genius. Its great hollering opening notes before each stanza thrilled, the accelerating patter excited, and it was touching and striking to have it end quietly, in an echo of one of those opening hollers. I enjoyed it enough to regret (a little) Hampson’s decision to encore with “At the River,” one of my favorite songs and one I was surprised had not been included in the main program. It obscured the memory of that final note of “Boatmen’s”; as beautiful and brief as it is, the impulse to round off the first half with it was understandable, and appreciated by the audience, which reacted warmly each time Hampson came to the edge of the stage and opened his arms, as if asking us to applaud ourselves.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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  1. I heard No. 7 symphony over the radio.
    The woodwinds (esp. the flute) sounded most insincere I have ever heard. I suspect that was from poor instructions of the conductor. The great genius Wagner’s words may have confused him. The performance was musically awful.

    Comment by Thorsten — July 20, 2014 at 10:00 pm

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