The opening of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) yesterday at Ozawa hall took on melancholy qualities from our hearing the late Festival Directory Steven Stucky commemorated in performance of a solo cello work Dialoghi. Stucky had nearly completed the programs for the Festival before his untimely death at the age of 66 from brain cancer in February. For the beloved, influential member of the American musical community, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, a composition professor at Cornell University for more than 30 years and a member of Juilliard’s faculty since 2014, death came especially prematurly, not merely because of the tendency for modern composers to be long-lived (Elliott Carter had an entire Schubert-lifetime still ahead of him when he turned 69).
Dating from 2006, Dialoghi exhibits many of the characteristic qualities of Stucky’s work: clarity, craftsmanship, and a strongly melodic sense that tends often to the lyrical. A set of variations based on a musical translation of the name of his friend, the cellist Elinor Frey, it makes excursions to various unusual neighborhoods while remaining close enough to the musical material to remain comprehensible to the acute listener. It was given an open-hearted performance by Fischer, who produced a singing tone while keeping the interpretation conversational and personal, and who plunged passionately, even recklessly, into the technical challenges.
The first night of FCM, which typically encompasses larger works from established composers, did not deviate from that tradition. The ensemble of record on this evening, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, was made up of the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. The TMC is a summer academy whose attendees are “emerging professional musicians”, in the language of the TMC website. The two outer works on the program provided a platform for individual performers to shine in the context of an ensemble, in works organized with wildly different techniques. The majority of Witold Lutoslawksi’s (1913-1994) Chain 1 from 1983 is performed without a conductor-provided beat. Instead, the performers play much of the music freely, with only the beginning and end of a subsection indicated by the director. Perhaps inevitably much of the music is episodic: instruments variously take a melodic or dramatic lead, with murmurings and commentary occurring around them. Ideas overlap (or “chain”) from section to section, giving a sense of progress if not of development. It was a cacophony of soliloquy and personality, all beautifully expressed. Moments of full ensemble were overly dense, in contrast to the gorgeous clarity that was achieved when subsets of players were involved. As engaging as the performance felt, perhaps a bit too much personality going on simultaneously. TMC Fellow Nuno Coelho conducted when necessary, while otherwise presiding benignly.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s (b. 1958) Five Images after Sappho for mixed chamber ensemble showcased soprano and TMC Fellow Bahareh Poureslami. Salenone wrote Images for TMC Vocal Program Head Dawn Upshaw, who also recorded the work and who performed it at the FCM back in 2004. If having to step into a work stamped by the legendary Upshaw gave Poureslami any qualms, she did not show it. In fact, she recalls Upshaw in her radiant demeanor, her sure-footedness and light touch – even in her judiciously chosen moments of “acting”, which took the form of subtle changes in expression and pose. If her warm-toned and confident instrument gains some heft and strength in the coming years, she will be formidable indeed.
Salonen’s piece combines four lovely atmospheric impressionist scenes with a rather clumsy and un-theatrical “wedding” scene which Poureslami wisely sang straight, with minimal italicization, so one could at least enjoy the sound of her voice. The ensemble, under TMC Fellow Christian Reif, couldn’t match the soprano for warmth and tone, providing a rather dry background that ensured Poureslami would steal the show. Inexplicably the FCM chose not to provide texts for the Salonen. Brief and fragmentary as they are, and despite reasonable enunciation from Poureslami, they are not entirely comprehensible, especially in the awkward final scene. One could see confused page-flipping throughout the hall as the audience went hunting for text.
If conductor Reif didn’t quite find beauty in Images, he got something equivalent from Magnus Lindberg’s (b. 1957) Marea (1990). Translated as “tide” the work is typical unrelenting Lindberg, though its palette is greyer and blacker than I typically expect from this sometimes hyper-colorful composer. Its dark, dense block of music for full orchestra occasionally thins out to feature individual choirs of instruments. No sooner do they speak their piece than the full group descends on them again. It has an urgency, a pressing forward—but also an inexorable pressing down. Reif and the orchestra found this heavy music to their liking, giving a performance that threatened to choke the breath out of you, until the very end when the oppressive weight of the work suddenly broke like a fever, and dissipated in bright, brittle soprano twitters that echoed like birdsong. Reif has an undeniable charisma which didn’t animate the Salonen, but which knew how to press forward with this bigger, perhaps more ungainly work.
Nothing could have been less ungainly than the final work of the evening, Stucky’s Chamber Concerto conducted by the estimable Stefan Asbury, who also the heads the TCM Conducting Program. Asbury took the orchestra firmly in hand, producing precise and balanced opening measures that evinced a level of focus and concentration we hadn’t yet seen. The concerto spins out music from a handful of intervals, producing constantly shifting but firmly tonal character, granting every orchestral choir a presiding moment. It is brilliantly crafted and generous to the players, but those virtues are also pitfalls. Over time the attention wanders, the craft becomes a glossy surface, and the generosity becomes extension in time. The excitingly frantic ending felt like it could have been placed in several earlier locations, though I would not have wanted to lose the end sections where the lower strings were finally given license to glow. But the work did its job, allowing the preternaturally gifted players of the TMC to share their individual gifts, while Asbury ensured that the ensemble as a whole excelled. One hopes that this show piece, presented with impeccable taste, sets the stage for somewhat riskier fare in the coming days.