On a vibrant Berkshire morning, the Tanglewood Music Center presented a wealth of chamber music in Ozawa Hall to a sizable group of early Sunday morning risers . The first of a musical double-header before the afternoon BSO concert, offered three established works and two by Composition Fellows.
Starting off the two-hour excursion was Fred Lerdahl’s multimovement Waltzes (1981). Lerdahl, who was in attendance, has ties with Tanglewood going back to the 1960s where he studied under Arthur Berger and Roger Sessions. Unfortunately, Lerdahl’s name was misspelled in the handout. Waltzes traverses through many musical ideas in its 12 movements, with sections of dramatic and playful juxtapositions, lyrical warmth, fugal freneticism, and dense, contrapuntal dances. Written for violin, viola, cello, and bass, this abnormal configuration distorts the concept of a string quartet by extending the range downward, freeing up the cello from the bounds of harmonic foundation.
A clearly difficult work, requiring much ensemble communication, the fellows tackled it with vigor. While a few tutti gestures sometimes lacked cohesion, the intent of the composer came through, with the many subtle articulation changes, the seamless passing-off of melodies, and bouncy pizzicato textures. The wild and dense finale was impressive, as the momentum resisted exhaustion and drove to the final chord.
Paul Mortilla’s Stupor (2015) crashes through seven minutes of hip arrhythmic statements of jazz, funk, and even ragtime. The syncopations and sharp, concise gestures accented the dramatic silences. Through the non-classical quintet formation of trumpet and bass clarinet with percussion, bass, and piano, one was reminded of the sonic world of Eric Dolphy’s bass-clarinet and the New York avant-garde. Directed by the spirited and exacting Stephen Drury, the rhythm section took control to set the “vibe” and character. Difficulty, however, arose in maintaining the energy, both in its formal design and the execution.
Stark contrasts and odd transitions seem inevitable in TMC shows. Immediately after the change of set and a quick emergency string replacement, Dvořák’s second quintet commenced. Though the robust introductory note by the bassist solidified the position of the low strings as rhythmic propulsion, heard most clearly in the second movement and third movements, this also pressaged imbalances in much of the ensemble passages, whereby the outer voices rose above the rest of the texture. Fortunately, the quintet brought freshness to the last movement Finale: Allegro assai and effectively communicated its pastoral quality
The second fellow, Theophilus Chandler, took ethereal Crumb-like textures, gradually transforming them into a theatrical drama of three collective characters: string trio, clarinet duo, and “rhythm section” (string bass, piano, percussion). His Night Music (2016) explored hierarchy and social structures through instrumentation. The fiery actions of the percussionist created a musical opposition to the whisper-like swells and stasis of the string trio. After this dichotomy was introduced, the pianist punctuated the percussionist with his own sparked gestures. The final cohort, the clarinet pair, in an impressive display of virtuosity, added to the heated discussion until the climax. In a surprising turn, the violinist stood to assert her concluding soaring statements with the timbral support of crotales.
Three strong and promising players closed with, the formally expansive Brahms Piano Trio in C Major, op. 87. Like his other trios, this work includes many passages where the violin and cello act as one. The performers brought a fluid and smooth lyricism to the broad, sweeping phrases and highlighted the differing dramatic nature of the themes in the first movement through clear and enthusiastic communication. Despite this awareness, the piano may have overpowered somewhat. Balance aside, the Scherzo and Finale showed definition and exuberance.
This wide spectrum of programming displayed the technical and collaborative acumen of the Tanglewood Music Fellows. Three works specifically highlighted the various pursuits of strings players outside the traditional quartet formation. Challenges of communicating form, and developing flexibility in adapting dynamically were also well-met throughout these interesting and stimulating instrument combinations.
David Stevens is a Boston-based saxophonist and woodwind doubler, recently graduated from NEC with a double master’s in saxophone performance and music theory. In addition to performing, he spends much of his time as an educator, arts administrator, and theorist.