Day two of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood brought a concert of seven pieces at Ozawa Hall curated by Kathryn Bates, former cellist with the New Fromm players 2008-2010 and now with the Del Sol Quartet (and native of Concord). Bates’s selections focused on the string quartet: all fell easily on the ear by FCM standards; some left lasting impressions.
The afternoon opened with Jack Body’s Flurry for three string quartets. Body (1944-2015) was a major figure in New Zealand contemporary music, but Flurry is an encore, a bit of a gimmick, very effective. The three quartets play short motives from different regions (New Zealand, Singapore, Mexico) that share pitch material, all overlapping and ping-ponging around. When Bates, who was playing with the TCM Fellows, shouted “One more time!”, I don’t think anyone objected to the repeat, but we got the idea the first time.
This was followed by a desultory performance of Terry Riley’s G Song, a collection of variations over a slightly jazzy harmonic pattern with a bright twist in the middle. Perhaps it was the slow tempo, perhaps the players simply were not in sympathy with an idiom which demands rhythmic liveliness over conventional “expressive” playing, but the result disappointed.
Also disappointing was Moritz Eggert’s Croatoan II: In The Sandbox. Eggert is a blowhard of virtuosity in print, and I mean that as a compliment. Bates informed us that he is also a close follower of Mozart in the Jungle and has dissected each episode on his website from the point of view of a classical musician. In Jean-Pascal Vachon’s program note Eggert is quoted about the “atopical” character of his music: “Atopical music is a free space, full of wild and unexpected ideas, they might be sweet, bittersweet, shocking, transgressive, provocative. This is the non-place I want to be with my music, because there I can have the most freedom.” Intriguingly, “croatoan” was the sole word left behind from the vanished Roanoke settlers in Virginia, a word without known meaning [except see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croatan]. Yet Croatoan II is just a string quartet arranged around a percussionist, who plays the now expected wide range of instruments but who mostly settled on bongos. This was fast-moving, fun music, and if I listened to any 30 seconds of it in isolation I would be intrigued. Listening to minutes of it at once, though, I found little to remark upon. This despite a charismatic performance by percussionist Tyler Flint, who in addition to having great bongo chops succeeded in playing such transgressive instruments as party horn and chained bathroom plunger without provoking a single titter from anyone.
On the heftier side of the ledger was Rene Orth’s Stripped, a string quartet written in reaction to an art exhibit of metalworks that had been removed from their original structures. It begins with heavily scratching sounds that over the course of the work metamorphose into more conventional playing, while also moving from close harmonies into something more traditional. Orth is a notable name in contemporary opera, and her work here has a deft dramatic touch. The harmonies near the end approach but do not reach sentimentality. The opening sounds never disappear, and haunt the evolved music. While the listener can’t relax into it, the music leaves one with a feeling of resolution once it ends. Assembled out of many textures, it has a sense of long line, beautifully realized by the TMC Fellows who joined Bates in the performance: David Bernat and Hae Ju Lee, violins, and Samuel Pederson, viola.
As exciting as world premieres of new works are, the fact is that most fail to hold the attention after they end. I am happy to report that the premiere on this program, Kui Dong’s A Night at Tanglewood, bucks that trend. Born in China, Dong is based at Dartmouth College. While she has written many works that explore her own East-West dynamic, A Night at Tanglewood does not do so explicitly. Instead, it examines resonance and collaboration within the context of the string quartet. As it opens, only the cellist is in her typical position. She holds long high notes as the remaining three players stand at a table at the far left of the stage, playing water-filled glasses tuned to a microtonal scale. This texture of long, high, gently interfering sounds is the heart of the piece. When one player strikes the glasses with wooden sticks, the effect is electric. Eventually the players leave the glasses and, one by one, pick up their instruments and play, while walking to their traditional positions. Simple music boxes have a role as well, sending cascades of notes into the haze. As music, it holds ear and attention, if one has the patience to wait for the sounds to evolve (but never resolve). The visual aspect of the work is crucial yet not intrusive. Something of a narrative is implied: near the end of the work the cellist rises for the first time, and walks to the glasses, turning the handle of a music box as she walks. The music box is both charming and alienating, as it demands only minimal effort from the musician to achieve its effect. Beautiful and haunting and thought-provoking, the piece was given a thoroughly committed performance by the 2017 New Fromm Players: Samantha Bennett and Xiaofan Liu, violins, Mary Ferrillo, viola, and Francesca McNeeley, cello.
Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle is a duo for violin and cello based on Mongolian folk music. Approximately pentatonic (but with surprises), adorned with ornament and fluting harmonics, the opening material is stated at length in the violin. Once the cello starts answering, the music becomes more complex and demanding but never strays far from its origin. Liang deftly develops it without distortion. Invigorating dissonances arise from juxtaposition of lines; dances appear to drive the work to its finish. TCM Fellows Cameron Daly (violin) and Chava Appiah (cello) were attuned both to the demands of the work and to each other, moving easily from independence to close cooperation.
A frustration of following contemporary music is that so much of it, even works considered seminal, gets performed so infrequently. A pleasure of FCM is getting to hear some of those works performed by new generations, and so it was gratifying to hear the New Fromm Players return to finish the concert with Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 4, Amazing Grace. It’s a set of variations on the famous hymn, but in addition to varying texture, rhythm and harmony, Johnston varies the scales being used. This might be called microtonal, but Johnston’s vision is greater than that: he is not interested merely in the use of tones between and among equal-tempered notes, he wants to revise entirely how scales are constructed and used. Bates described Johnston’s music as “Pythagorean Americana”, an excellent description of the Quartet No. 4 but not of his work as a whole, which struggles with modernism just as vigorously as it embraces the history (both recent and ancient) of music. Your reviewer is not keen-eared enough to tell you if the 5-limit and 7-limit just intonation sections were in tune; I can tell you the effect was rich and complex, and the New Fromm Player’s execution was tonally gorgeous, rhythmically alive.
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.