in: Reviews

July 24, 2015

‘Modern’ Elders in Full at TFCM


Gunther Schuller-bows following performance of his Dreamscape at BSO in April (Dominick Reuter photo)

Gunther Schuller bows following performance of his Dreamscape at BSO in April (Dominick Reuter photo)

Thursday night’s concert at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music was dedicated to the memory of Gunther Schuller, who died earlier this year, age 90. BMInt readers probably don’t need to be told about the immense influence he had on music in Boston. If anything his effect on Tanglewood was even more profound, as he was a more or less constant presence since 1963. He was integral to the inception of the FCM (then called the Festival of Contemporary American Music), in 1964, directed the composition department from 1966 to 1985, and was artistic director of the entire Music Center from 1974 to 1985. This concert was initially intended as a celebration of Schuller, featuring an older work as well as a new commission in celebration of the TMC 75th anniversary, the world premiere of Magical Trumpets opening the event.

Magical Trumpets is, unsurprisingly, a showpiece, scored for 12 players using nearly every instrument type available, from piccolo trumpet to bass trumpet in both E-flat and B-flat, along with the standard issue. In addition, each player had a collection of mutes which Schuller employed to a variety of effects. With 12 trumpets it was inevitable that moments in the score would evoke fanfares and bugle calls, but the work is punctuated with other brief genre excursions as well: a moment of dirty jazz, a passing oompah band. These scenes are knit together with wandering melodies that Schuller expertly blurs by adding multiple accompanying lines, and the timbral similarity of the instruments and the careful balance among them allowed the primary line to swell and recede. The melodic shape was always clear, but the precise pitches were often huddled in clusters with notes from other lines, an engaging effect that allowed the piece to unfold horizontally while allowing the vertical dimension to complicate and enrich the line. The soundworld created was constantly shifting and alive, and held the attention effortlessly. I can’t imagine this piece not having a long life at large conservatories or anyplace else with a surplus of talented trumpet players with a sense of adventure. The 12 Tanglewood trumpeters played with grace and beauty except where violence and power were called for, when they provided intimidation without ugliness.

Italian composer Bruno Maderna had a too brief career, dying in 1973 at 53. He was on the TMC faculty in 1971-’72, and his Serenata No. 2, written 1954-’57, followed the Schuller. Maderna had a unique compositional voice, powerfully drawn to the procedures of atonality, to music generated by the combinations and permutations of a tone. Jean-Paul Vachon’s program note tells us that the preparatory work for the Serenata included “tables of series, number matrices, patterns for the distribution of timbre and dynamics, plans for the ordered unfolding of ‘sound events’ and ‘magic squares.’” Maderna was able to find freedom in these processes and create an identifiable, personal voice. The apparently forbidding apparatus described resulted in a work of uncommon transparency and comprehensibility, in a harmonic world that obeys its own logic and which is frequently quite beautiful. The work still demands attention, but the opening, wistful flute line remains in the memory easily, and its regular recurrence allows the listener to track the evolution the work as it becomes thicker, denser and more active. New material arrives about halfway through, and clusters of rapid notes begin to affect the music, giving it a dancelike character, strongly rhythmic but never simply falling back on pulse. The TMC Fellows gave a performance that emphasized the sensual qualities of the Serenata in its first half, and the more dynamic personality of its end, and throughout gave strong individual character to each episode of this varied work.

Elliott Carter was another TMC giant: in 2008 FCM was dedicated entirely to his music in celebration of his 100th birthday. Carter was able to keep writing even after that. His work toward the end of his life was always recognizably his, but became shorter, the mood frequently lighthearted, even a little goofy. His song cycle for tenor and chamber ensemble on works by Edward Estlin Cummings, A Sunbeam’s Architecture, demonstrates this compression and economy, but the piece is serious and moving. It comprises six brief movements whose texts form something of an emotional arch: two love poems anchor beginning and end; the second and fourth texts are angry and bitter, informed by the experience of war; the third and fourth are reactions to these themes, one a sarcastic reflection on heroism, the other a brief and nearly unhinged yawp of desire to the text “love is a spring at which / crazy they drink.…” Carter had an unsurpassed ear for prosody, and the setting of the texts is expert while still retaining moments of surprise; despite the unconventional shapes of the melodies, the words rang clear and the texts provided were necessary only insofar as the speed of delivery was often rapid. Music served text, alternately skittering and resting as it responded to Cummings’s poems. Carter was unafraid to impose his own personality and to engage in brief but effective dramatics: the anger in the second movement, which sets “no man,if men are gods” is undisguised, and the work culminates in a terrifying delivery of the word “heartbeat” in the final line, an effect paralleled in “love is a spring.” Tenor Nicholas Phan sang beautifully and confidently, effortlessly navigating Carter’s tricky language, never allowing vocal production to overwhelm the text or the musical texture.

After intermission, six of the New Fromm Players performed George Perle’s Critical Moments, from 1996, when the composer was in his 80s. They are compressed character pieces written for Pierrot ensemble and an awful lot of percussion (played with frantic aplomb by George Nickson). They are both serious and entertaining: each piece is distinct and well-articulated, and Perle’s inventiveness never flags. They evoke the spirit of musical forms (the first movement a march, the fourth a waltz, the third a rondo finale) without actually being in the forms. The performance was vivid and tightly wound, precise but filled with anticipation and energy.

Critical Moments was the third piece written by a composer well into an age that used to assume senescence, and all three were interesting and compelling if a bit strange in scale and resources. Perhaps I was overly impressed, perhaps I was just seduced into their stripped-down, distilled worlds, or perhaps the attention required to attend closely to all was sapping my strength, but I found the last two works of the program a little slack. Schuller’s Concertino da Camera was written in 1971 for an ensemble of 17 wind, brass and percussion players. The same interest in timbre and color was at play as in Magical Trumpets, but it lacked the newer piece’s economy and urgency, and wasn’t as personally identifiable, having the sort of sound one got very used from a lot of CRI and Louisville Symphony new-music records. The best moments occurred when the work was quasi-improvised: as the conductor signaled passing milestones to the players, the musical material let its hair down a bit, and the work became purely about the sounds being made solo and in ensemble.

The concert concluded with the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s TMC75 commission Megalith, a work for piano and large ensemble that featured Peter Serkin playing a part that was predominant but not dominating; this was no concerto. It is based on a notably odd raga scale, but not in any way derivative of Asian music. Much of the first half of this large piece (approximately 20 minutes) is a slow investigation of the potential of the material exposed at the start, a bit too deliberate perhaps. The piano part has moments of irascible activity which kick up orchestral activity, as if it had disturbed the bottom of a pool, but the work drifts for some time without making a strong claim for attention. By the end it becomes more engaging—a scherzolike quality appears, and tollings and tintinnabulations that had occurred earlier begin to draw the attention, and there was much to admire and even enjoy in the last five minutes. Yet even here the episodes changed frequently and with a certain arbitrary quality.

Jonathan Berman conducted all five of the large works, a heroic feat. The evening lacked two of its scheduled conductors. Oliver Knussen, who co-curated the FCM with John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi, will apparently not be making it to the Festival at all because of “visa problems.” He had been engaged to conduct both Schuller pieces and the Maderna. Stefan Asbury was also unavailable; at the preconcert talk it was disclosed the reason was the impending birth of his child, and by the opening of the concert we learned they had a boy. He was to conduct A Sunbeam’s Architecture. Jonathan Berman, a young English conductor with a sizable contemporary-music résumé, was scheduled to conduct only Megalith, but somehow managed to step in for all five works and did a spectacular job, his performances confident and shapely and alive. There may have been some tentative ensemble moments in the Carter, but the achievement was impressive. Berman was assisted by the astonishing level of accomplishment from the TMC Fellows, whose ability to play difficult scores together is one of the abiding wonders of the FMC.

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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