The programs at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music this year are admirably varied and inclusive, as well as shot through with brand-new music written for the occasion. That makes it difficult to construct a narrative through a specific concert, and Friday afternoon’s was no exception, which was filled with six pieces, half of them premieres, whose primary link was that all the composers were somehow connected to TMC.
The two pieces on the first half did share similarities, being works for soloist and chamber ensemble and making reference to liturgical texts, but they were far more different than similar. James Primosch’s (b. 1956, TMC 1984) Dark the Star, from 2008, is post-romantic meditation on loss and death, with words provided by American poet Susan Stewart, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Psalm 116. Stewart’s poetry is much beloved by Primosch, though I found it here to have a heavy and portentous voice: “You came upon me like a shadow / and you came into me like a shadow / and there you dwelled within me / and I in you.” All of the texts emphasize tropes of darkness, and the music matches, the solo lines for baritone and the instrumental colors muted and frequently in low registers. In this performance the single line was split between two performers, baritone Dimitri Katotakis and bass-baritone Davone Tines, whose quite different vocal qualities gave timbrel variety to the piece at some loss of narrative coherence. Katotakis has a focused, sometimes declamatory tone that pierced the sonic fabric, with an affecting plaintive quality in quieter moments. Tines has a dramatically resonant and enveloping sound, whose richness sometimes prevented textual clarity. The voices were supported by an ensemble of cello, clarinet and piano (Ethan Young, John Diodati and Pierre-Andre Doucet) supplemented with a range of percussion (played by Joseph Kelly). There were architectural choices that didn’t seem to land: repetition of two of the poems did not provide revelations, and the melismatic quasi-chant from the Psalm felt out of place. Each individual setting had its merits – the foreboding deep of the first poem “Dark the star” is quite arresting, as was the contrasting crystalline preciousness of Rilke’s “Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch.” But variety within each setting did not disturb the overarching sense of being set in shadow, somewhat burdened with meanings. Stephen Drury conducted and shaped this monodrama.
Luigi Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la note di Natale dell’anno 1956 is in five movements, two for soprano and ensemble interleaved among three movements for ensemble alone. Dallapiccola (1904-’75, TMC faculty 1951-’52) is a towering figure of strict serialism, whose name you hear more than his music. Robert Kirzinger’s note compares Dallapiccola with Roger Sessions: both men were widely respected in their time and produced much music; both are admired as craftsmen by other musicians; and both wrote music that remains difficult to love. The texts chosen by Dallapiccola were from Laudi (poems of praise) by Jacapone da Todi (1230-1306) which are positively ecstatic in content, especially the second, which uses the word “amor” 18 times in 18 lines, i.e.: “Love, love, Jesus long desired / Love I want to die in your embrace.” Soprano Suzanne Rigden (who also provided the English program translations) has a lithe and athletic voice that easily encompassed Dallapiccolla’s complex vocal lines, executing the stratospheric ascents without undue effort. The musical effect, alas, was tough, overwrought (even hysterical) and not especially ecstatic, despite fine playing from the ensemble under John Harbison.
The second half was made up of shorter works, three of which were commissioned for the TMC 75th anniversary and which were receiving their first performances. John Harbison’s Seven Poems of Lorine Niedecker is a short work for piano and soprano which sets brief poems by this down-to-earth American modernist. The poems blend one into the next seamlessly, with emotional changes signaled by subtle textural changes. The redoubtable Ursula Oppens was at the piano, paired with soprano Sarah Tuttle, whose warm and appealing voice was a pleasure to hear. Tuttle has a very open and engaging presence on stage, lending an unexpected earnestness to Niedecker’s words—when she sang “you bring me peaches” she seemed so pleased at the prospect that it engendered pleased laughter from the audience.
Scottish-born composer Helen Grime (b. 1981) was a TMC Fellow in 2009 and is on this year’s faculty. Her compositions to date include an oboe concerto, a clarinet concerto (premiered at the FMC in 2009), and a double concerto for clarinet and trumpet. That piece provided the impetus for the clarinet and trumpet work premiered at this concert, entitled Embrace. It a short, fascinating work for an unexpected pairing whose primary innovation is Grime’s ability to work with the timbres of the instruments to find beguiling blends and divergences. She makes canny use of unisons, where the two instruments combine to make a sound that exists halfway between them but which sounds like one player. Somin Lee on clarinet and Austin Williams on trumpet matched each other beautifully not only in tone and intonation but also in articulation.
Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) is a well-known name in contemporary classical circles, perhaps mostly for her opera The Dybbuk. Israeli-American, she attended TMC in 1963 and served on the faculty in 2008. Her commission, entitled Birkat Haderekh (“blessing for the road” in Hebrew), is a wandering meditation on melody written for the Quartet for the End of Time ensemble: clarinet, violin, cello, piano. Cast in a single movement less than 10 minutes long, the work develops and deepens ideas introduced in a wistful opening clarinet line. Mostly introspective and direct in its appeal, it coaxed an especially attractive performance from clarinetist Raymond Samtos, whose tone is seamless and fluid yet still able to respond sharply to the emotional demands of Ran’s writing. Oppens returned to the piano, performing with BSO violinist Wendy Putnam and TMC faculty member Mickey Katz on cello.
The concert closed with 12 miniatures by Gerald Levinson (b. 1951, TMC 1971) for a rather odd ensemble of flute, oboe/English horn, alto saxophone, percussion, guitar, piano, cello, and double bass. As contemporary composers puzzle how to write music in an environment where both traditional harmony and serialism are well past, many have turned to explorations of color and instrumental possibility. Levinson’s work, Here of amazing most now, could be used as a sourcebook of techniques for those beginning such explorations. Each of the movements has a poem assigned to it, most of them by the 18th-century Japanese poet Buson. The musicians read before each movement; an example: “Sudden shower– / a flock of sparrows / clinging to the grasses.” Swarthmore professor Levinson was a student of Crumb and Messaien, whose influence can be clearly heard in these vivid small pieces realizing poetic images in sound. For instance, in realizing the poem just quoted, he unsurprisingly chose to work with birdsong (a nod toward Messaien). “Butterfly / sleeping / on the temple bell” called forth low buzzings, flutter-tonguing in the flute, and deep gongs. This was not a deep work but a wide one, continually varying and surprising, a series of aural snapshots of images from nature. Nature herself even obliged: thunderclouds began to gather and the skies to darken just as Levinson’s work arrived at its final movement, with a text from Cummings: “…all / shallbe and was / are drowned by a now / …in a thunder of oneness,” and the skies began to open up over Lenox as we left the Tanglewood grounds.