Until Sunday, the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music was characterized by pieces seeking their way, with varying degrees of success. The FCM as a whole had a tentative, uncertain quality, difficult to characterize. Sunday morning’s concert paradoxically gave the FCM a much stronger profile by blowing away any sense of stylistic or formal coherence whatsoever. If that sounds like a bad thing, it shouldn’t – it suddenly became much more interesting, if also confounding and confusing. There were two world premieres on the program that could have been written on entirely different planets, and neither of which fit comfortably into the fabric of the FCM as it had so far evolved.
Each half began with something written recently by a Boston area composer. The program started innocently enough. Martin Boykan was a Tanglewood Fellow back in 1949 and 1950, and is now Professor Emeritus at Brandeis. As Once on a Deserted Street… from 2010 is a restrained and thoughtful study in independent voices in dialog. Written for a mixed ensemble of clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano, it is built out of two duos: a reflective, responsive and quiet conversation between clarinet and violin, and a contentious and vigorous exchange between the horn and piano. Boykan writes independent lines with personality that can stand up to one another, making it possible for each of the instruments to be speaking its own part in perfect clarity despite having to contend and respond to each other. After some time the cello enters, its almost histrionic melodies echoing the character of the second duo, but listening and reacting attentively, so as best to provoke the group into new directions. The ensemble (Patrick Graham, clarinet; Kevin Haseltine, horn; Heather Thomas, violin; Jakob Alfred Paul Nierenz, cello; Mari Kawamura, piano) was nuanced and excellently balanced; not a note was lost, and each player brought a different sense of nuance to their line. This was reflective music-making, understated and thoughtful. It required the listener to turn one’s attention to it—somewhat demanding, but also inviting and engaging.
This was followed by 27-year-old Benjamin Scheuer’s Voices, the morning’s first world premiere. Zoe Kemmerling’s program notes promise that Voices “defies all traditional boundaries,” a phrase that rarely bodes well—not because anyone should be slavishly respectful of “traditional boundaries”, but because the very idea makes almost no sense in a world that musical world that has seen and absorbed serialism, minimalism, 4’33” and aleatory music. Voices is for two woodwind quintets, each arranged at the back on of the stage at the extreme right and left. The players supplement their primary instruments with additional secondary noisemakers, from the traditional (a tam-tam, a recorder) to such items as a plastic air horn. The instruments are often used to make unusual noises; and if all that isn’t enough, there’s occasional sounds coming from speakers, environmental noises and voices. Neither important pitch material nor meaningful rhythm is recognizable, though one does hear repetition and sequencing in time. The music attempts to make assemble a whole from these disparate timbral sets, and does not succeed. Part of that failure stems from the lack of a coherent grammar.
Helmut Lachenmann’s music trades in the same non-melodic, non-harmonic language and yet that much older and more practiced composer can make extended pieces that hold attention and create centers of understanding while still remaining mysterious. There is something coarse-grained in Voices that doesn’t permit it to create these moments of interest. Secondarily, the sound materials used cannot help but create extra-musical associations, and one needs to be pathologically po-faced not to be distracted by the thoughts that arise as one encounters yawps, flatulence, Charlie-Brown-style instrumental vocalization and sudden surprising percussive noises. I was surrounded by TCM students, who kept glancing at one another with suppressed smiles, and several of them were struggling mightily to contain their giggles. You can’t blame them; they weren’t making fun, they were reacting to the absurdity of what was being put into the hall. Again, merely “funny” sounds can be used to great effect when disciplined: laughter can accompany the first time one hears the extended and quasi-linguistic ululations of Meredith Monk, for example; but Monk’s music creates its own language from the extremity of the voice, and it does not take long to acclimate to it. Although I can’t say I found Voices to be a success, it was exhilarating to hear the it in all of its ill-behaved glory; the atmosphere had gotten a little close in the FCM, and Scheuer’s sounds cleared the air. Stephen Drury gave his usually completely committed attention as he conducted —in fact, at two moments he was visibly attempting to draw more volume and activity from his players, which raises at least the possibility that more aggressive playing might have given Voices a different impact.
The second half began with Michael Gandolfi’s As Above, a work in two brief movements for a small chamber orchestra: one player each on violin, viola, cello and bass; a wind section of flute, oboe, clarinet and horn; and percussion and piano. I have heard only a few works of Gandolfi’s in the last couple of years, and find myself wishing I could like them more. They have gleaming, attractive surfaces, and Gandolfi is clearly a master orchestrator and has a clever sense of counterpoint; but they often feel to me to be all surface, and the intricacies of his writing can seem glib. The first half of As Above, “Touch”, might be the beginning of my coming to a better understanding. I could not exactly hear the “fractal processes” that the composer says “Touch” incorporates. What could be heard: small cells of tonal material swirling around quickly, harmonic and rhythmic language emerging from the interaction of those cells. When it was working best there was an organic sense of generation in the piece, a light hand and emotional content that emerged from the intervals of the cells rather than from some overt compositional intention. There were a few moments where the density of the composition was especially exciting, material jostling to be heard, but these quickly subsided. The second half, “Electric”, layered fragments of various popular music gestures: at its best it conjured up Conlon Nancarrow writing for Pops, but it subsided into long, derivative melody that wasn’t able to realize the promise of the earlier writing. Conductor Stefan Asbury kept the music moving forward, but couldn’t entirely ensure the overmatched strings could be heard throughout.
I’m not sure I even know what to say about Bernard Rands’ world-premiere Folk Songs. If possible it was even more shocking than Voices, due to its complete absence of any “contemporary” elements at all, save a suave use of percussion and a multi-national diversity. It recalled the Copland “Old American Songs” that Thomas Hampson sang at the Shed Thursday— but they were even less daring. Copland’s songs clearly speak in his voice, while Rsmnds’s speak in a language that is beautiful, but generically familiar: The song “Mi Hamaca” was characteristically, almost stereotypically Mexican; the final number, “La Vera Sorrentina” sounded like lost Verdi. Rands is certainly a genius orchestrator. With a a slightly smaller ensemble than Gandolfi,s (violin, viola, cello; flute, oboe, clarinet; harp and percussion), he evokes an entire orchestra, effortlessly creating settings that range from fragile and crystalline to rich and majestic. The folk songs themselves are connected to places from Rands’ life, combining some “greatest hits” (“Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder,” “The Water is Wide,” “Ar Hyd is Nos” known in English as “All Through the Night”) with songs in Spanish, German and Italian. It’s a pleasant diversion, and was sung with verve and gusto by three different women. Something in Soprano Laura Strickling voice’s suggests dark copper in its color, but does not have anything metallic about it; Mezzo Reilly Nelson sings with a tone that is bright and glowing, with a bit of an edge when needed; Mezzo Sara Lamesh had a voice that was soft in texture, almost pillowy when used at low dynamics. All three were game to put on some attitude when the songs called for it: Strickling’s “Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder” was a comic success, while the fight between her and Nelson in “On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At” remained a little arch. The songs proceeded one after another, often connected with a klezmer-derived melody that opened the set. Conductor Karina Canellakis kept up an effortless flow and maintained balance within the ensemble and with the singers that never faltered. It’s hard to believe that this was listed as one of the main attractions of the FCM, since it could as easily have been at Pops. But there’s no denying the open-mindedness and catholicity of the programming, even if it demolished any clear curatorial viewpoint.