IN: Reviews

FCM Wraps

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Robin Steitz as Cricket-(Hilary Scott photo)

Tanglewood’s five-day Festival of Contemporary Music had an added physical dimension this year. Talks and some chamber music took place in the newly-opened, elegant little Linde Center across the lawn from Seiji Ozawa Hall—where chamber and orchestral concerts have been performed since it opened in 1994. William Rawn, architect of both, has feeling for wood, glass and clean lines, and how they fit in the landscape.

Contemporary selections, stretching back to the second half of the 20th century, were performed with skill and heart―ask anyone―by fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. They had little to do with the standard repertory played in the Koussevitzky Music Shed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose members, in the Berkshires for the summer, coach the fellows. (Sunday’s BSO shed program managed Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England before reverting to a Beethoven concerto and a symphony.)

But Sunday’s BSO conductor, the triple-threat British composer and pianist Thomas Adès, in his third year as BSO Artistic Partner, and second as director of the Festival of Contemporary Music, seemed to be everywhere.

Probably because Adès is British, we heard numerous pieces by British composers he is familiar with, and saw young British conductors he has seen, and British accents were heard on the lawn outside Ozawa Hall during intermissions.

FCM opened August 8th in Ozawa Hall, on the Highwood section of the property. The concert’s single work was the American premiere of The Cricket Recovers, a 75-minute chamber opera from 2005 by Richard Ayres, a Netherlands-based Englishman. Coached by Dawn Upshaw and Alan Smith, who head Tanglewood’s vocal activities program, and led with comfortable assurance by Adès, it was minimally but cleverly staged, and the voices were dazzling.

Players sat in the center of the stage, and singers stood behind music stands across the front, holding up cards (which they changed) with a one-word ID―their character’s name, the weather, the season. They wore ears or hair to suggest what animal they were.

Eric Carey Nathaniel Sullivan Walter Aldrich (Hilary Scott photo)

Ensemble instruments played the cheery, buggy, diatonic score. Cricket (Robin Steitz) is sweet but feeling sad and gloomy. She wears a gray shawl to represent her depression. Each insect and forest buddy tries to cheer her up―with first-class voices. The elephant, a lithe baritone, Nathaniel Sullivan, with big ears and a trunk, is also disconsolate, because he wants to climb a tree. The baritone gallworm, Walter Aldrich, is gloomy, but loud and nasty, with a paper megaphone.  

Eventually the spring sun comes out, which makes Cricket feel better and cast off her shawl. (And the elephant happily gets up a very small tree.) They all give Cricket a party, wriggling in dance behind their stage-front music stands. Do we assume Cricket has had seasonal affective disorder?

At a certain point, an intrusive thought wedged into a listener’s mind: Who is this composed for? Not for children―at least there were none in the audience. Not for grownups, because the reason for Cricket’s misery is never articulated.

So we have cute pleasing music which might work well without voices, marvelous singing with spot-on intonation and coloratura, clever staging doing the most with practically nothing, and still, there’s a big hole in the premise. Oliver Knussen did this better, Ravel, Adès has―though not Lukas Foss, whose Griffelkin flopped here in 1956. These student fellows will always remember how hard they worked. What else will they take from the experience?

Weekend concerts and talks were, in large part, in Studio E of the Linde Center. This room has wondrously enhanced natural light, views of the outside―people squint into the room and then stroll toward the pleasant cafe―and a good seating rake. It’s more institutional than Ozawa Hall, but it will likely blend in as time passes.

It was filled for Sunday afternoon’s showing of old silent film clips, scored by this summer’s composing fellows. We’re talking Buster Keaton excerpts, Fritz Lang’s harrowing “Metropolis” and more. Instrumentalists with various conductors played beneath the screen. What a great idea, head of composition Michael Gandolfi! And what talented composers, to look at these old clips and set them to new music. (Little joke: Keaton escapes foes in a dress, to the score of “Pretty Woman.”)

For every year’s final FCM concert, a huge orchestra traditionally stuffs onto the Ozawa Hall stage. Everyone’s in for this. Monday’s program had four fat pieces.

In Gerald Barry’s 2017 Canada for tenor and orchestra, Troy native and Bach specialist Charles Blandy was the guest tenor. Opening with a gay Irish dance, it proceeds to general wildness, featuring the text of the Prisoner’s Chorus from Beethoven’s Fidelio, in Barry’s translation into English and French. (It didn’t matter: the only word you could make out was “Canada!” repeatedly shouted by the orchestra.)

The Danish composer Poul Ruders got sidelined last year when Knussen died, but this year, fresh from the Santa Fe premiere of his opera, The Thirteenth Child, Ruders arrived for an earnest reading of his 2013 Symphony No. 5. Its big industrial chords were augmented with brass inflections and screaming whistle, while rumbling drums interrupted strong string lines. It was noisy but not moving.

Thomas Adès conduct the TMC Orchestra (Hilary Scott photo)

Knussen, a beloved and hovering presence, died last year just before the festival. While a couple of his short works were sandwiched in then, in memoriam (shoving aside previously programmed works by Ruders), this year’s planners got to Knussen more fully.

In addition to a tribute recital of his piano works and those of his close colleagues, Monday’s finale included his 1991 Whitman Settings, in which Elizabeth Polese and Margaret Tigue, Tanglewood Music Center sopranos coached by Tony Arnold, and an orchestra led by TMC fellow Killian Farrell, split the four passionate or gentle songs. What glorious voices. And thankfully, Whitman’s words, which probably made the piece, were printed in the program.

The final giant piece, Asyla by Adès, from 1997, pretty strong, was conducted Monday by the composer. It received the 2000 Grawemeyer Award, one of the biggest. The title is the plural of “asylum” ―safe places, if you’re crossing a border, or are mentally unbalanced. Contemplative melodic lines are spread by their harmony, and high woodwinds. The tambourine etches crisp syncopations sharply in the long string line. Non-dissonant movements vary from long and slow to the degenerate pounding wildness that recalls his early, successful opera, Powder Her Face.

Adès seems to do everything: he gives a good beat and has strength and virtuosic control of sound. The work’s “motion, contact, lights, confusion” are mentioned in the excellent note by Robert Kirzinger, who oversees the program book.

We have neither covered all nor finished with this extraordinary annual event. Next year’s program planning is already in progress.

Leslie Kandell has written for The New York Times, Musical America, CVNA, Opera News, the Berkshire Eagle, and numerous magazines, gazettes and journals.

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  1. Cricket was played by Robin Steitz. Emily Helenbrook played Vole and Sun.

    Comment by Laura N — August 14, 2019 at 9:48 pm

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