in: Reviews

August 14, 2017

A Long Night and Day and Night at Tanglewood

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Stephen Drury conducts FCM Fellows in Van Gogh Blue (Hilary Scott (photo)

Over the last 30 hours I will have attended and written about five Lenox concerts. So, if you wish to follow, I will lead a mad dash through an extraordinary period, beginning on Saturday at 6 p.m. with the Prelude Concert at Ozawa Hall

This concert is the one place where the FCM and the traditional Shed prelude concerts come into conversation. Otherwise, all of the FCM events take place at odd hours (Thursday night, Friday afternoon, Sunday morning, Monday night) over at Ozawa Hall, which the casual Shed spectator has to trek some distance to see. The material is usually on the easy-to-digest side: In addition, on this occasion, the Shed concert-goer might recognize two of the three composers: Caroline Shaw you might have read about in the papers when she became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitizer Prize for music for Partita for Eight Voices; and the composer of the opening work on the Shed concert at 8:00, Julian Anderson.

If you haven’t heard Shaw’s astounding Partita, you should; she has an expert hand and a panoramic imagination for the voice. However, it is a work made up of relatively short movements, each with its own repertoire of sound. If you wondered what she would do with a larger form, her string quartet Blueprint will not help you. Inspired by some of the harmonic language from Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 6, it is a wild and entertaining ride through a cascade of ideas, but it’s just a lark. It ends with a cute cadence, a kind of “shave and a haircut” for the classical period, which seems intended to (and did) provoke laughter. The TMC Fellows that played it clearly had fun doing so (Shengnan Li, Erin Burkholder, violins; Ye Jin Goo, viola; Mari Coetzee, cello). Shaw is just past 30: one waits with great anticipation to see what the years will bring.

Amy Williams’s two pieces for piano four-hands, Abstracted Art 1 and Abstracted Art 2, were also a product of a composer in her 30s, but were written in 2001 and 2002. These pieces sound like they are digesting styles from great modernists, turning them into personal statements. I found the second less interesting, its big chordal chunks sounding like hooks of Boulez with the barbs filed down. But the first was very interesting indeed: its materials were flighty and jazzy scalar fragments that hunkered down into an off-kilter rhythmic stride. It sounded like a handful of essences from Nancarrow’s player piano music – rapid flourishes, the entire piano engaged in all registers but with contrasting textures, unpredictable arrhythmias – not quite made personal, but more than imitation. Elizabeth Dorman and León Bernsdorf played with high energy and tight coordination, and their interpretation of Williams’ interpretation of Nancarrow had nothing whatever mechanical about it.

Julian Anderson’s Van Gogh Blue and his work opening the Shed, Incantesimi, both came with lengthy essays and extra-musicial associations which I won’t share here (they both mention the word ,orrery” for what that is worth). The inspiration for the five movements of Van Gogh Blue should be obvious, but the work is less about any painting than about Anderson’s masterful handling of an unusual ensemble (flute, two clarinets, harp, piano, viola, cello, double-bass) and especially about his writing for paired clarinets. The clarinets peregrinate around the hall – from traditional seating to being placed on opposite sides of the stage, of the aisles, and finally of the back of the room – an effect that throws into relief the many ways that the pair of instruments interact. At unisons or octaves, they have a peculiarly strengthened weight; in consonant intervals, they have rich and lush overtones; at more unusual intervals, difference tones appear. In the final movement, they are tuned a quarter tone apart, and one player uses an E-flat clarinet, creating an unexpected new set of sounds. The movements have titles that evoke sunrise, vineyards, mountains, and of course a starry night. The music is impressionist but with strong lines and interesting conversations between instruments. It was quite dazzling and raised high hopes for the next piece we would hear…

Nikolj Znaider (file photo)

Saturday, 8 p.m. Shed Concert

…but alas, Incantesimi proved uninteresting. Despite some flashes of the sure-handed orchestration that enlivened Van Gogh, and even having two trumpets stand on either side of the orchestra much like the arrangments of clarinets in the chamber piece Incantesimi (for huge orchestra) never got out of the “generic new work” trap. I have had this experience enough with new works for orchestra to make one wonder if we should be writing new music for full orchestra any more: there is so much still to be found in chamber music, where voices are heard more clearly and the composer can “edit” the ensemble. But there’s no time to muse on that, because here comes Nikloaj Znaider to play the Brahms Concerto.

Znaider is an imposing figure and performer, and is the principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra to boot. On this evening, he seems intent to make sure he leaves his fingerprints on this concerto, especially in the outer movements. His initial entrance is ferocious, the top note in the second theme touched so lightly, so much lift, that it threatens to become a grace. His playing is extroverted, but considered: it has the force of rhetoric. It is not intimate – perhaps that is why my attention wandered during the second movement to note the relatively small lawn crowd, perhaps frightened off by thunderstorms. He played the Heifetz/Auer cadenza, slashing his way through it with so much brio that the orchestra bars that followed felt a little cowed. It was a big performance, rapturously received, and topped with a slow Bach movement filled with colors, all of them dark and dramatic.

The orchestra sounded choppy and uneven, however. They were led by Juanjo Mena, and a certain lumpiness remained after intermission in the Beethoven 7th. In the first movement he seemed to want to emphasize sharpness of entrances, hard attacks with plenty of space around them. The slow movement was a bit fast, but felt breathless on top of that. The scherzo brought extremities of dynamics, and there were sounds in the finale that sounded ugly and uncharacteristic of the BSO. What we had here seemed to be a failure to communicate. Nevertheless, it was received with tremendous enthusiasm; I waited until Mena’s third curtain call, and then slowly exited. It is a minor form of melancholy one suffers when carrying around a list of complaints while all around you people shout bravos. But I had to shrug that off, for I had to rise early to be ready for….

Sunday, 10:00 am. FCM Concert, Ozawa Hall

…the traditional Sunday morning FCM concert. Curator Nadia Sirota assembled a program beginning with David Lang’s just (after song of songs), a minor watershed for the FCM. This may be the first explicit embrace of a composer associated with Bang on a Can, whose Mass MoCA marathon was last weekend. At some point, I imagine Lang will exhaust this current seam he is mining: vocal music made up of small repeated cells, decorated by instruments. But he has not done so yet. The work’s text distills the “Song of Songs,” taking the attributes spoken of and the gender of the voice speaking and turning them into a simple formula: when the man speaks, the sentence starts “just your…”, when it is the woman it is “and my…” and if both are speaking it is “our…” Hence: “just your mouth…/and my mother’s son’s…./our couch.” The texts are sung by three women always in close harmony.  The “just your” phrases have a gentle fall while “and my” rise, and “our” expand out from a single note. The music for each of the phrases stays the same, with small adjustments to accommodate the number of syllables in the attribute. They are joined by a viola, cello, and limited percussion (mostly marimba) decorating the space around them. I go into such exhaustive detail because the effect is hypnotic, erotic and gently moving, and it is not always clear why it works so well. The singers (Mary Bonhag and Fotina Naumenko, soprano; Jazimina MacNeil, mezzo-soprano) produced a blended, beautiful sound, simple and pure; the instrumentalists (Matthew Gustafson, cello; Mark Stein, percussion; Marika Yasuda, cello) precise and gently supporting.

Marcos Balter’s Chambers for string quartet proved more difficult to grip. Each of its three movements is influenced by a composer (Georg Friedrich Haas; Beat Furrer, Alfred Schnittke), and the title refers to Alvin Lucier. That’s a fairly intimidating group to inherit from, and although Chambers is not at all intimidating. Its spectralist material (whistles, tremolos, harmonics) returned often, so the listener could orient himself, but it often remained inscrutable. Certainly one could enjoy the playing (from TMC Fellows Lara Lewison and Emily Switzer, violin; Hanna Martineau, viola; David Olson, cello), especially the gossamer and translucent texture in the first movement. Frank J. Oteri’s program note quotes Balter as saying Chambers might be “too dense for listeners to grasp at a first hearing” — that was certainly my experience, as it remained frustratingly at the edge of my comprehension.

Thomas Adès’s Court Studies from The Tempest, six brief, polished movements that capture characters and events from the non-supernatural parts of Shakespeare’s play did not elude my grasp. The piece is a pendant drawn from Adès’s full opera, an exhibit of exquisite craftsmanship by composer and performers (TMC Fellows Amy Semes, violin, Nathaniel Taylor, cello; Taylor Marino, clarinet; and Léon Bernsdorf, piano) alike.

I struggle a little to describe Nico Muhly’s music in general, but for very different reasons. Muhly’s music is almost always “accessible”, but I find it avoids easy characterization. There’s often a minimalist mechanism in it, but the repetitions are never simple and the mechanism is employed to heighten other facets of the music. There are melodic snippets, but few I would be able to hum afterwards. On this morning, we had a world premiere from this fantastically prolific composer — Clip for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola and cello. Starting with a dense mash of overlapping figures in different, complex meters, the working-out of the piece consists in the extraction of elements for juxtaposition afterwards. The moment-to-moment development in the piece often works by rhythmically offset repetition, relieved by lyrical episodes. Muhly’s note registers several meanings implied in Clip — “fastening, striking, speed” — but leaves out cutting out or cutting short, both of which are at work here, especially at the end, which comes unexpectedly and leaves the listener suddenly holding their breath. Muhly’s scoring sometimes strikes me as dense or heavy, and there were moments of that here, although the performers (TMC Fellows Elizabeth Lu, flute; Erin Fung, clarinet; Paul Torrisi, trumpet; Eliza Wong, violin; Lucas Button, cello, joined by Sirota on viola) never allowed the texture to muddy, no matter how intricate and overloaded.

Donnacha Dennehy’s Surface Tension for four percussionists is a tour de force that builds a narrative and an architecture out of simple material. Played throughout at a constant pace, it is at first a rhythmic etude, with accents ricocheting from player to player as they play tenor drums. These are not typically thought of as “pitched” percussion, although they clearly have a pitch. By running tubes to them into which the players blow while playing, a limited glissando effect is realized as the drum is inflated or deflated. This adds a kind of quasi-harmonic swell to the rhythm, and there’s a constant contribution from tom-toms as well. All of this gauzy pitch material coalesces into something more concrete when bowed marimba notes are added to the mix many minutes into the work. Never quite melodic, and never quite a harmonic “progression”, these pitched contributions change the nature of the music, and we emerge back into the rhythmic universe – but now each beat is subdivided into three, whereas we had started with divisions into four. This change to the pulse makes the music more violent as it leans into 2+1 rhythms, and builds to a definitive end. Played with tireless energy by TMC Fellows Michael Daley, Will McVay, Nick Sakakeeny and Marcelina Suchocka, it lifted many of the audience to their feet at the end — and FCM audiences are far more sparing with standing ovations than most.

Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Shed

I return to the Shed just over two hours later with a sense of whiplash. Today’s conductor is Lahav Shani, a 27-year-old prodigy who is currently principal guest conductor with the Vienna Symphony orchestra and who will become the chief conductor in Rotterdam next year. Both Shani and yesterday’s conductor, Juanjo Mena, are substitutes for Christoph von Dohnányi, who still recovering from a fall earlier in the year. I’ve often been annoyed by von Dohnányi, whose work often seems to me competent but perfunctory. If I had been wishing a bit for him yesterday, as Mena and the orchestra quibbled with each other, I was very happy to make Shani’s acquaintance. The opening Figaro overture sped perhaps faster than either conductor or the orchestra really wanted—one set of descending scales in the violins sounded much more of bow and string as they rushed to stay in tempo — but I can live with that given the clear, relaxed and easy-breathing Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that followed. Joshua Bell had the solo; it was impossible not to compare him to Znaider. Both men have clear, identifiable personalities: but Znaider spoke Brahms in Znaider’s voice, a kind of exquisite ventriloquism. When Bell was playing, we knew it was he speaking, and no one else: but what we heard was Mendelssohn. Bell’s physicality implies great struggles, but his sound was all light and air. Bell also played a Bach encore, but it was in both the concerto and in the Schubert “Great” C Major Symphony that followed, that the orchestra recovered its clear tone. In Shani’s hands, they sounded like the BSO at its best again. The first two movements of the Schubert went especially well; the scherzo and the finale always risk bogging down, and Shani and the orchestra didn’t entirely avoid that fate (count me as not quite buying the “heavenly lengths” that Schumann saw here, though I see them perfectly well in the late piano music and the string quintet). But the ending blazed brightly, and the orchestra produced handsome sounds again. We went out with the immense lawn crowd feeling like all was well…

Sunday, 8:00, Ozawa Hall, TMC Chamber Music

…but that didn’t last long. One can only avoid the news up to a point. If one had to go to another classical music concert in the face of an abysmal and ugly week of world and national events, one could have done worse than going to Stephen Drury’s concert of chamber music on Sunday night. The show comprised contemporary works from living composers unaffiliated with the FCM, but all of the pieces were connected to ideas of justice and working together. Before it began, Drury stated his belief that music existed to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Without condemning any of the works or intents behind the FCM, this concert did make it disquietingly clear that no such issues had as yet intruded on our experiences at all. We were the comforted comfortable most of the time, and while one concert wouldn’t change that, it felt valuable to have been reminded of it.

Of the four works, two suggest themselves for traditional evaluation. The main connection of Rand Steiger’s Post-truth Lament for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart resided in its title, and perhaps if one viewed its processes metaphorically. The music, played by Drury and George Xiaoyuan Fu, opened with a noisy, gamelan-like extended outburst, and then settled down to the work of making structural consonances from two instruments born to be dissonant with respect to each other. By contrast Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues couldn’t have been more programmatic: a deep rumbling slowly evolves to evoke the contained violence of the cotton mill. From its overtones emerge bluesy scale fragments, which, after a climax, provides a moment of respite. Then the mills return, and a song appears, is transformed, and disperses as the mill sounds move up to the top of the range of the pianos and disappears. TMC Fellows Leon Bernsdorf and Michael James Smith played with passion and intimidating intensity.

The other two pieces existed less to create objects for review than processes to question what it means to play together (or apart). Christian Wolff, a colleague of John Cage and Morton Feldman, among others, wrote Changing the System in 1973. Written for eight or more instruments, the performers play parts that are a mixture of traditional notation and graphic notation. Near the end of the work, a text from Tom Hayden is spoken by some of the players, the syllables split among them. This fragment from the text justifies the title: “It’s the system itself that sets the priorities we have, that distorts the facts, that twists our brains and therefore the system would have to be changed in order to change priorities…” It was realized on this evening by 12 players of very mixed instruments, who moved in the second half to play various forms of percussion (including bottles and a bicycle wheel).

Lahav Shani leads the BSO and Joshua Bell (Hilary Scott photo)

The closer, Louis Andreissen’s Worker’s Union, is another piece for an unspecified number of players, where the music is notated with rhythmic precision but with only relative pitches: the middle line of the music is the middle of your instrument’s range, and the other notes are just above or below it without specific pitches described. The players execute the (often wickedly complicated) rhythmic figures together, deciding by signal when to move from one to the next. The 13 players include one playing a kind of bargain bull-xylophone: a series of different lengths of two by four screwed together and played vertically, with much force. Fragments of wood flew off furioso.

The works contrast sharply: Wolff’s starts slow, with extended clusters of sounds that call to mind the slow changes of natural processes; those clusters turn to constellations of attacks that cluster and separate. The text is comprehensible but becomes otherworldly as the vowels are bent and pitched, and the words are divided among speakers. Worker’s Union is relentless, violent, fierce, infectious. However, both evoke a utopia of musical creation. There can be no definitive performance of either, since much of their value comes from the choices made by the performers. Since no objective measure of those choices can exist, then the audience acts less as a judge or consumer than of witness. In the utopia the organizers posit, we might all be producing such work for one another: alternating standing in witness with creation is one ideal of the performer/audience relationship. As I watched the TMC Fellows hoot and holler for each other as Worker’s Union came to an end, the TMC had perhaps become a momentary realization of this utopia—for them, at least.

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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