IN: Reviews

FCM’s 75th Opener


Samantha Bennett (file photo)
Samantha Bennett (file photo)

The 2015 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music officially opened on Monday night with some formidable forces, including pianist Emanuel Ax and a massive TMC Orchestra—there were 118 names listed in the program – that filled the stage of Ozawa Hall to near-overflowing. There was also a gratifyingly large audience, including a large contingent on the lawn. The lavish resources were marshaled in the service of five pieces—four of which were world premieres of works commissioned to celebrate Tanglewood Music Center’s 75th anniversary. The forces inspired several of the commissioned composers to experiment with orchestral weight and instrumental timbre, with some interesting results.

The world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s (b. 1960) American Prelude No. 1 kicked off the proceedings. American Prelude refers to the fact of its American commission, and perhaps to some of the material, including several swoony melodies that distantly recalled Bernstein. But to my ears its American-ness was its adoption of a big, booming stereotypical American personality. Filled with fanfares and modest explosions, it conjured up a boisterous extrovert, all elbows and hail-fellow-well-met and backslapping and mild halitosis. A memorable curtain raiser, its patchwork of punchy ideas reveled in the sheer number of people at its disposal. Conductor Ruth Reinhardt presided placidly over its outbursts; after its initial statements threatened to swamp the hall with noise she quickly brought the orchestra to heel without losing any impetus.

The stage was quickly emptied of percussion, winds and brass for the premiere of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Lost Landscapes: Tanglewood, a rescoring for soloist and strings of a movement from a larger work for violin and piano. The slow movement consisting of intertwining melodic lines of restrained lyricism shared by soloist and ensemble made a deep emotional impression in a conservative idiom without sounding derivative or nostalgic. The work developed linearly, the next phrase picking up ideas from its predecessor, a subtle but powerful tension building and then releasing, always within bounds. Soloist Samantha Bennett was eloquent and thoughtful, passionate but contained, as the work required. Conductor Marzena Diakun listened carefully, ensuring that the orchestra remained an active but not dominant partner in a conversation. A work of urgent expression realized with care and attention, it was received warmly by the audience who demanded multiple bows from Bennett.

Andreia Pinto-Correia’s (b.1981 premiere was perhaps a bit overburdened with thoughts and ideas. Her Timaeus is a three movement work in an American modernist idiom with some colorful orchestration. Not only did it name-check Plato in its title, the movements themselves had titles: “The Work of Reason,” “The Work of Necessity,” and “The Work of Reason and Necessity.” On top of that, her bright and thoughtful notes say the work was inspired by Elliott Carter’s Time Lecture, and describes the elaborate timbral organization of the piece, with earth, air, fire and water all represented by groups of instruments, not always the obvious ones (i.e. fire is “piano, harp, bassoons, celli… marimba, temple blocks and wood blocks.”) The music itself couldn’t compete with that mountain of meanings, at least not on a first hearing. Carter might be heard as an influence, but only at a distance; in the same way, some of the wind writing recalled Messaien, but without that composer’s insistent personality. As an examination of the resources of the orchestra and an essay in instrumentation it held the attention. The orchestra under conductor Christian Reif produced some beautiful glowing sounds, and well as some disconcerting bumps and creaks, but the intellectual ambition behind the work remained opaque in performance.

I was especially looking forward to Robert Zuidam’s (b. 1964) Tanglewood Concerto for piano and orchestra, not only because Emanuel Ax agreed to give its world premiere, but also because Zuidam’s biography cites Nick Cave, Joy Division, jazz, rock and punk as influences. Alas, if those influences were at work, they were buried beneath a fairly conventional contemporary orchestral surface. The first movement, “Rehearsal at the Westbarn (to Ollie Knussen)” is highly rhetorical, build out of two initial gestures, ascending rush of notes and a reiterated pitch. These materials are revisited and transformed, giving rise to periods of free invention. The piano is the primary expositor of musical material and the most significant commentator—the leader of the group and its focal point, but not a hero. Ax played with gravity, authority and clarity, making the mechanics of the work as audible as possible. The piano writing, especially in the first movement, is very linear, what virtuosic show it contained being found in skittering, rapid runs of notes. Ax dispatched these effortlessly, and could often be seen singing along with the score as he punctuated the orchestra’s lines and held forth with his own. The second movement, “Moon over Lake Mahkeenac (to Randy Woolf)” attractively evoked late night summer with flutter-tongues and hazy textures. The final movement, “Hawthorne Cottage (‘oh my God, we’re in the wrong car!’) (to Lukas Foss)” would seem to promise some mayhem indeed, but was instead a brief up-tempo finale with an airy texture and only a few surprises along the way.

Stefan Asbur (file photo)
Stefan Asbury (file photo)

Jacob Druckman’s (1928-1996) Aureole from 1979 revealed solid construction and active, listening intelligence. Druckman’s use of the orchestra is more selective than those of the other composers on the program (save Rautavaara). The entire ensemble gets a workout, but rarely all together, and often in small ensembles or set pieces: it’s a collection of chamber works embedded in orchestral texture. Stefan Asbury conducted both the Zuidam and the Druckman, and elicited the finest ensemble playing of the night in Aureole.

The FCM is taking the rest of the week off until Thursday when it will resume with six concerts over four days, presenting another eleven pieces commissioned for Tanglewood’s 75th, eight more of which are world premieres.

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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