On Monday night we gathered one last time in Ozawa Hall to hear the youthful Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center perform in the Festival of Contemporary Music. After four days of appearing in chamber music subsets, they all assembled to form an orchestra. Having been in the company of the Festival since Thursday, it was something of a game to recognize faces in the crowd on stage that had appeared earlier in the weekend. In keeping with the overall “homecoming” theme of the Festival, the composers represented all had connections to the TMC; well, almost all.
Roger Sessions certainly did, having had a long relationship with the BSO over his career and serving on the Tanglewood faculty four times. Sessions’ music can be difficult to love – despite the evident care and attention that goes into them, there is something pallid in his coloring, something evasive in the content. Sessions’ 1981 Concerto for Orchestra opened Monday’s concert. His swan song before he died in 1985, it is for a large ensemble in a large scale fast-slow-fast form. The title recalls Bartòk and implies a dynamic opposition of groups of instruments – neither proved to be the case. Although there were extended moments of winds versus strings, and brief solos individual instruments, the piece moved rapidly from episode to episode. Some of them were rather beautiful in isolation, and one could imagine just one of those episodes being dwelled on and expanded by a composer less driven to develop, and perhaps less orthodox about his musical language. There was a chorale-like section, for example, that had a low, cloudy character to it, with winds and brass predominating in lower registers. The color was arresting and the texture engaging – but no sooner had it established itself that we moved away, a wayward phrase picked up and suddenly whirled into the strings. There was both too much activity, and not enough clarity – throughout one might be forgiven for not knowing if we were hearing a fast or a slow movement, as there was such a variety of note lengths and changes that one was left resolving it in one’s ear into a moderato throughout. Conductor Stefan Asbury led the orchestra inexorably from start to finish, each moment carefully controlled. The winds tended to predominate in the texture; it is unclear from a first listening if this is to be laid at the feet of the performers or the composers. While there is something lukewarm about this music, it is good to have a chance to hear it live – I can’t recall having heard Sessions live in my recent memory – and it would seem a critical part of the mission of a Festival of Contemporary Music to revisit music that would otherwise disappear entirely.
Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing from 2008, occupied the concerto slot on the program, right before intermission; Mackey was a Fellow in 1984. It is an especially personal and idiosyncratic take on idea of a concerto, inspired by and, to some extent enactinacting the death of his mother, who was able to “gain control of her destiny to the point of predicting the day she would go,” according to Mackey’s note on. While it is not programmatic it is easy to hear the soloist as the mother confronting mortality – at first speaking eloquently in the face of extinction, and then crying out against it. The first movement pits a lyrical violin against a mostly violent and expressionist orchestra – the contrast is not subtle, but Mackey succeeds in the tricky task of extreme juxtaposition without turning it into a mere jousting match. Sarah Silver’s violin was occasionally entirely swamped by the orchestra, but the part is written so as the tide of sound rose up around her, she naturally disappeared into it; it felt right to hear her so overwhelmed. This was not a traditional “heroic” concerto: the violin’s music is too tender and thoughtful, even when it is muscular or rapidly technical. There was, however, a strong sense of independence, even of an attempt to sway or convince, as parts of the orchestra would take up fragments of the violin’s material, sometimes to echo or sing together, sometimes to throw it back. After a cadenza, again hardly heroic or showy, but filled with harmonics that slid up and down the staff, the violin returns much more energetic and agitated, and it concludes with the entire ensemble having negotiated a way to the end, which is restful and quiet. Silver’s playing was flawless and confident; a certain reticence in her approach and projection might have been problematic in a more bombastic creation. In this context, it suited. Conducted by Daniel Cohen, the orchestra was able to produce a more brilliant and varied sound than they did in the Sessions, and there were impressive moments of violence in the winds and brass.
Charlotte Bray was a Fellow fairly recently, in 2008, and her At the Speed of Stillness was written only four years later. Accompanied by an extensive note by Zoe Kemmerling in the program, this one movement composition is said to have emerged from a mildly surreal Dora Marr poem and the Sizewell Power Station, a nuclear plant about five miles north of Benjamin Britten’s beloved town of Aldeburgh. Kemmerling’s extensive note provides a detailed map to the many and varied short episodes that are strung together here; a sample: “A constantly pulsing web of darting parts runs throughout the piece… isolated flourishes of the beginning, strung together with tension-filled connectors…” A lot goes on, and it is all more or less engaging, but on this listening, at least, I strained to find something to unify it or to pull the listener from moment to moment organically. Bray clearly has an ear for color and texture, and conductor Karina Canellakis was able to use these elements to create moments of sudden pleasure, like glimpsing the ocean occasionally from a road behind hills; but then just as quickly they were gone.
The evening and the festival concluded with John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox. Adams was listed in the Festival program as having attended Tanglewood in 1974; I hope this was not the rationale for including the work, as it was announced before the concert started that in fact it was not that John Adams but some other John Adams who had been there 40 years ago (and I presume it was not John Luther Adams either). The Festival programs were odd this year, never settling on a given viewpoint, and it seemed a further symptom that we ended with a work by the composer most outside the TCM environment. Nevertheless, the orchestra (conducted again by Asbury) produced a satisfying account of this score, which is named after Nicholas Slonimsky, probably best known for the Lexicon of Musical Invective. The relevant Slonimsky work here is his Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns—the opening is a dense intensification of the opening of Stravinsky’s Le Chant du Rossignol, with scale patterns set up in complex relationships. This quickly thins out and, beginning with a viola figure, selects and refines motives from the opening. Adams’ sense of drama shapes the piece, engendering surprise while moving inevitably through time. In the context of the Festival of Contemporary Music, this was something of a “war horse from a (relatively) popular composer from 1999, and it was performed as such—with sound and speed and a great flourish at its conclusion. The orchestra throughout was solid, with excellent solo playing—a profoundly talented pick-up band that was impressive if not quite inspired.