Contrasts have been a hallmark of Tanglewood for more than half a century. Standard fare, featuring high-profile works and artists, fills the festival’s Koussevitsky Shed as well as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s coffers. Less well known, at least to the general public, is its Festival of Contemporary Music, an enterprise that has grown from a few cutting-edge concerts in the intimate Tanglewood Theater to a major weekend concert series at the 1200-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall. Last Sunday, fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, Tanglewood’s educational branch, performed a diverse sampling representing influential trends in contemporary music.
The first half of Sunday morning’s concert examined the influence of the German aesthetic on late 20th– and early 21st-century music. The one-movement opener, Thea Musgrave’s Space Play, is a chamber concerto scored for woodwind quintet and solo strings. Darkly colored, yet melodic, it traverses different moods in a uniformly chromatic language. Its initial lyrical ideas gave way to pointillistic sections only to revert to lyricism again before culminating in a state of musical repose. Space Play evokes the mid-20th-century experimentalism initiated by the Second Viennese School. In particular, it experiments in balancing the demands for coordination and virtuosity among a large group of soloists. So that it can be performed without a conductor, Musgrave devised a system of hand signals, used in tandem with a specific seating arrangement, so that the musicians can communicate with each other clearly. Within this framework, the composer includes many aleatoric elements that do not need to be coordinated as closely as other sections so that soloists can highlight their virtuosity without being tethered to particularly intricate ensemble demands.
Musgrave’s 1974 work, the oldest piece on the program, was followed by the American premiere of Nathan Shield’s Commedia for chamber orchestra, written this year. Commedia takes inspiration from the 19th-century German romantic idea of literary masks and from the Italian theatrical tradition of Commedia dell’arte. In one movement, Shields explores of the idea of personality as performance. The two outer sections are cast in a scherzo mode engaging in motoric and jazz-influenced rhythms. These loud, hectic, wide-ranging sections enclose a quieter and more lyrical portion which projects pensive interiority. Torn between Harlequin and Pierrot, Commedia creates pathos by contrasting the extremes of each section’s musical personality as two sides of the same emotional coin.
The second half consisted of two representatives of contemporary minimalism. Andrew Hamilton’s music for people who like art for soprano and chamber ensemble (2009) sets of a series of maxims from the visual artist and art theorist Ad Reinhardt’s 25 Lines of Words on Art Statement. The music treats the text as fragments, splitting the meaning of each maxim in order to accommodate the creation of long sustained musical textures. In a classically minimalist manner, the music consists primarily of repeated diatonic chord progressions in constantly changing rhythms. Likewise, Hamilton gives the soprano soloist repeated melodies that are frequently interrupted and then repeated again from the beginning. Alongside these melodies, the soprano frequently utters a variety of shouts and on many occasions makes vomiting sounds. After the forward-driving main section, the piece ends calmly using a melody recorded by the composer from a street performer in Berlin which sets Reinhardt’s text more intelligibly than the music of the earlier sections.
Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite (2012), which concluded the concert, is based on the chord progressions of two songs written by the rock band Radiohead, Jigsaw Falling into Place and Everything In Its Right Place. Reich incorporates these progressions into his own signature style to the point of completely obscuring their relationships to the original songs. Despite this, each of the five movements maintains the fast-paced and easily tuneful disposition of its source. Alternating between slow and fast movements, Radio Rewrite oscillates between mechanical and reflective before concluding as dance. The last movement, cast as a pseudo-samba, provided an upbeat finale to the morning’s stimulating offerings.