Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music fills four to five busy days around the beginning of August every year, involving all the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, as well as the faculty, who are involved in both rehearsing, coaching, and sometimes sharing in the performances. The precise nature of each year’s program is shaped generally by that summer’s festival director. This year the honor/challenge falls to Ellen Highstein, who resigned after 25 years of superb leadership of the Tanglewood Music Center, but who remained on hand this summer as director of the Festival. This also keeps her on hand in case there are things to discuss with her replacement, Asadour Sentourian, who has just returned from a position at the Aspen Festival, having previously (before the turn of the century) been at Tanglewood working with the high school age musicians of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute.
To help plan this year’s Festival, and to gather a repertory of new works and new composers to be included, she assembled of four distinguished musicians as co-curators: soprano Tony Arnold, pianist Stephen Drury, composer George Lewis, and cellist Astrid Schween. Early Thursday afternoon they gathered to discuss the parameters of this year’s Festival, shortly before the opening concert.
Though each participant had his or her own viewpoint and specific suggestions, one specific feeling was that the various programs should present not only the work of newcomers, relatively speaking, the up-and-comers in the composition business, but also to pay respects to the major composers who have directed the FCM over the last decade or so, too many of whom have passed away in recent years. There was a concern—which has also showed in the regular BSO concerts this summer—to be especially aware of women and persons of color, who have traditionally played a minimal role. Each of the co-curators had several composers whose work we should look forward to. In addition, a few long-standing teachers and participants in the FCM had been commissioned to write a short piece in honor of Ellen Highstein, for the 26 years she had been involved with Tanglewood in such a central way.
Concert 1: August 4, 8pm, Ozawa Hall
The first program consisted largely of works for large chamber ensemble, roughly a dozen players, sometimes with a vocal soloist.
The entire festival opened, appropriately, with a work by Oliver Knussen (1952-2018), who had been a Fellow at Tanglewood himself in 1971. He was Director of Contemporary Music from 1986 to 1993 and on many occasions after that. The piece performed here was Requiem—Songs for Sue, referring to his late wife, who died in 2003. The inspiration for this work, a cycle of songs for soprano with an ensemble of just over a dozen instruments, came when his friend, composer Alexander Goehr, contributed four lines by Rilke to a memorial pamphlet for Sue. The poem began to attract musical ideas that set him on a search for other texts that might be put together to create a work. Eventually he grouped texts by Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado (in Spanish), W. H. Auden, and Rilke (in German). Though they are individual songs, each flows directly to the next and ends with a kind of eternal search for one who has gone. Rilke’s poem begins, “Are you still there? In what corner are you?”
Alvin Singleton (b. 1940) was born in Brooklyn and found his early musical direction in jazz. He came to classical music in his 20s. But a Fulbright took him to Rome, whence he traveled to Austria, where he remained for 15 years. Rather than choose either the jazz or the classical strain, he allowed his residence in a different musical culture to achieve a mixture, an “Afro-American-European interplay,” as he described it. His music often suggests an improvisatory quality, even whcn it does not specifically imply jazz, but contemporary composers whose music he absorbed in Europe, including Lutoslawski. The 1979 score Again, for 14 instruments (here conducted by Nicolò Umberto Foron, fuses these elements in cumulative power, with solo passages for trumpet, viola, double bass, and marimba that brings his two worlds together.
Lee Hyla (1952-2014) grew up in the era when New York City, where he lived for a decade, offered free jazz, punk, and rock, He was an active pianist in new music, and played Bach, he reported, every morning. His music often draws from styles of his wide-ranging musical activity. Performed here was Pre-Pulse Suspended, conducted by Stephen Drury, commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation as first heard at Tanglewood in the Festival of Contemporary Music of 1984. The 12-minute work begins with a wild and confusing opening in which the dozen instruments play overlapping, contrasting rhythmic ideas and tense irregular patterns. About four minutes into the piece, the music changes to a quiet rocking with long-breathed melody passed from one instrument to another. Gradually the energy of the opening returns, first in rapid interjections by one instrument or another, then building up to a brief version of the kind of music heard at the beginning.
Thomas Adės (b. 1971), finishing his term as the BSO Ellen Highstein Artistic Partner, demonstrated that he is as brilliant a pianist as he is a conductor and composer by playing his Three Mazurkas, Opus 27. They were composed for Emanuel Ax, who premiered them at Carnegie Hall in 2010. The mazurka, a Polish dance form, was one of Chopin’s favorite genres; Adės employs the basic elements of the dance, especially its ¾ time, and its flexibility of expression in rubato, but each of the three pieces is entirely different in mood.
The first concerto closed with a delightful work by Christopher Trapani (b. 1980), who creates music that intermixes cultural resources from different traditions, a result of his growing up in New Orleans, where many kinds of music have fertilizing one another for centuries. He wrote Waterlines: Five Songs About Storms and Floods in 2005 as a response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The first song, “Can’t Feel at Home,” was written in Paris, conceived as a song for a singer in the idioms of blues and country music. The expanded work, of five songs, was completed in 2012, when he was living in New York. The other songs—“Wild Water Blues,” “Poor Boy Blues,” “Devil Sent the Rain Blues,” and “Falling Rain Blues”—were adapted from songs recalling older floods and other events, which Trapani had set in the mold of blues pieces, with even the nature of the instrumental ensemble taking part. The conductor was Rita Castro Blanco, and the bluesy vocal lines were magnificently sung by faculty member, soprano Tony Arnold, who captured the spirit of the blues, and especially the “bent” notes so much a part of the tradition, superbly.
Concert 2: August 5, 2:30pm, Ozawa Hall: The Fromm Concert at Tanglewood
The second program of the Festival included three performances in tribute to deceased composers, Charles Wuorinen (1938-2020), who had been director of the FCM in 2011; John Cage (1912-1992); and Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Two younger composers and a faculty member were also represented. With one exception (Cage), this was a program of smaller chamber works.
Allison Loggins-Hull (b. 1982) is a member of the duo Flutronix (two flutist/composers who play a wide range of repertory, some of it with electronics) and a composer whose music has been heard with increasing frequency on both east and west coasts. The Pattern, chosen for this concert, calls for flute, clarinets, percussion, piano, violin, and cello—a close approximation of what has become known as the “Pierrot ensemble,” after the famous Schoenberg score (which does not call for percussion). The piece aims to “embody the tumultuous relationship between black and white Americans from the beginning of slavery until today.” The “pattern” of the title refers to the long seesaw of periods in which relations between the races were most unbalanced and those attempts to right the wrongs of the past. The score begins with intense passage calling up the “last battle of the Civil War” and proceeds to a moment were “true freedom seems possible,” but a sense remains that history will repeat itself. The description suggests program music, but this is not in any sense pictorial imagery, but rather a very challenging score that suggests the very slow progress of racial history in this country.
Charles Wuorinen, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, was a frequent visitor to Tanglewood and was twice commissioned by the Boston Symphony. His music was mostly intense and knotty approaches to serialism that were often a challenge as much to performers as to listeners. But occasionally he allowed his interest in early Renaissance music to motivate a chamber work derived from the music of early masters to be the basis of transcriptions to modern instruments as a way of introducing these works to modern audiences. For this concert, his arrangement of what is perhaps the most famous motet of Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria…Virgo Serena, reworked for clarinet, piano, violin, and cello. The unfolding of the rich counterpoint looks forward, in a sense, to Wuorinen’s own music, though in sound it is very different indeed.
Michael Gandolfi, head of the composition program at the Tanglewood Music Center, was asked to compose a short chamber piece in honor of Ellen Highstein. He responded with an imaginative score for the unlikely combination of oboe and two trumpets—with the oboe as the leading character, standing in the middle facing out, while the trumpets flank him and face inward toward the oboe. Gandolfi inserted a sort of musical joke at the beginning, one that reflects the many scores he has looked over in his role at Tanglewood: Every composer hoping to attend the program must send scores for evaluation. A surprising number of these scores began with a single note in one instrument, followed by two others, a half-step above and a half-step below. The judges began to call it “new music cliché number one.” He began his piece with a sustained, loud A (the note that the oboe normally sounds to set the pitch for the orchestra’s tuning), and followed it with the two trumpets quietly echoing the upper and lower pitches. Throughout the piece, the biggest surprise, perhaps, is that the oboe is never drowned out by the usually penetrating trumpets, owing to numerous devices to keep them in balance. The piece was only five minutes long, but it has a charming quality that suggests it will have a life beyond its intended purpose as a tribute.
The first half of the concert ended with a piece by the youngest composer to be heard in the festival (barring the Fellowship composers whose film scores are on the program for Sunday evening). Erin Graham (b. 1995) had early training in violin and piano in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, she took so strongly to a set of toy drums found in a park when she was ten that they led to her studying percussion and composition at the Eastman School of Music. Later she pursued graduate studies at Rice University in Houston and is now starting her fourth year in a doctoral program at the University of California, San Diego. The piece performed here, Manual, was inspired by Graham’s discovery of 19th and early 20th century instruction manuals for working with tools: “How to sharpen and what to use”; “Guide to Principal Trades”; “Catalogue of Seeds, Repair Manual.” From these she drew passages—dry and straight-faced—to set in a variety of ways, by singing, whispering, or speaking. There are three performers—mezzo-soprano and baritone vocalists, and a cellist. All of them play on a resonant pair of rocks struck together at some time or another, and the singers sometimes play arpeggios on the piano (which is faced away from the audience). Some of the musical gestures respond directly to the words from the manuals, and some are simply lost to the hearing when several spoken texts overlap, such as the very end, when the voices speak a kind of fugato, dying away as one finishes the line after the other. This imaginative piece, just 11 minutes long, created a particular round of applause for the performers and the composer.
The last half of the program featured two composers known for surprising approaches, John Cage, of course, has been long renowned for surprises—including total silence in his most notorious piece, and for collaboration with the equally avant-garde dancer Merce Cunningham. The two pieces on this program, Variantion III and Variation IV, for large ensembles, had the unusual feature that they were to be played outside Ozawa Hall, while the audience remained inside with the doors opened. (Ushers had warned attendees that the opening of doors after Erin Graham’s work did not signify intermission.) The pieces were listed in the program as running “ca. 12’,” but it ran rather longer, perhaps 20 minutes. But that kind of flexibility has never been atypical of Cage. What was more surprising though, was that the stage crew started moving pianos onto the stage while Cage’s music was coming in from outside. After a second and a third and then a fourth piano arrived, one began to suspect that this was a kind of choreography (in the absence of the long-passed Merce Cunningham), especially when the stagehands started rotating the pianos and moving them in and out of position and resetting them in different places onstage. Some of the stagehands brought in drums of various types (also surprising because all that was called for in the next piece was four pianos). But, after artfully placing the drums in various relations with the pianos, the moved them offstage or through the outer doors to the location of the Cage performance. It seemed surprising, though it was surely not so, that the stagehands complete all the artful elements of setting up for the final piece on the program, and got all the extraneous instruments offstage, leaving only four grand pianos facing inward in a square rotated 45 degrees from the audience point of view, that the music outside stopped. One was left to decide whether the music was supposed to run just as long as it took to set the stage, or whether the stage-setting had been made just elaborate enough to fill in the duration of the Cage scores. In any case, the stagehands took a bow from the front of the hall, while all the other performers did so at the side doors leading out to where they had performed.
Julius Eastman (1940-1990), whose piece stood last on the program, was a highly regarded composer-performer who embraced the varied messiness of the world, projecting his being as a gay black man in a society that was at first largely unwilling to follow him. In the last decade or so, his work become more frequently perfomed. His first great fame came as the result of his extraordinary dramatic singing/acting performance as the vocalist in Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King on a famous Nonesuch recording from the early 1970s, a disc that became and remains a classic. Following studies at Ithaca College and the Curtis Institute, he worked for a considerable time with Lukas Foss at the University of Buffalo, drawing sometimes on polystylistic approaches but gradually simplifying the structure of his work through minimalistic techniques, as in the work that was performed here, Gay Guerilla (1979) for four pianos. It grows entirely out of a simple repeated figure of four sixteenth-note chords that continue from beginning to end, starting in one piano setting up a sound that begins very quietly as a pulsation growing slowly in volume and changing notes or chords, into with the other three pianos also join in flexible mixtures and chords, with volumes steadily changing up or down, as if someone has turned a dial on one or more of the instruments. It continues, in all, for a half hour of hypnotic sensation, reaching a tremendous outpouring of sound quoting Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” To a listener who has been informed of its arrival at some point, it seems almost ready to arrive for an extended period before it can actually be heard; and then, once the hymn has received a full explication, the basic pulsations of the lines in the four pianos gradually recede into the silence of the opening.
Concert 3: August 5, 6 pm, Ozawa Hall: New Fromm Players, Faculty, and Guests
The New Fromm Players are made up of four instrumentalists constituting a string quartet who have been Tanglewood Fellows in a recent year in which they showed special commitment and ability in the performance of new music. (The name comes from Paul Fromm, one of the important patrons of contemporary music in the last half of the 20th century, who for many years supported the Festival of Contemporary Music. They take active part in many Tanglewood activities, and feature in one program of the festival. This year the New Fromm Players are David Bernat and Sage Park, violins; Elizabeth Doubrawa, viola; and Benjamin Fryxell, cello.
This program was a short one, filling in the normal time allowed for a Friday evening Prelude concert in Ozawa Hall. It lasted just over an hour and offered three string quartets by the New Fromm Players and a special premiere in honor of Ellen Highstein. As a long-time devote of the string quartet, I was eagerly looking forward to this program. But I found it rather tough going, partly because the greater part of the string quartet music was designed more as an expression of coloristic ideas with little of the linear, contrapuntal element that has been the heart and soul of the string quartet since Haydn and his contemporaries first established the genre. Even such richly coloristic works as the single quartets of Debussy and Ravel shape the inestigation of sonority within the context of musical lines. Of course, my reaction suggests that I might well benefit from rehearings of the pieces that I found most rebarbative. For the record, this concert was also reviewed in the Intelligencer by Stephanie Oestreich; her views can be found HERE.
Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) is a Korean-born composer who has spent most of her career in Germany, where she studied with György Ligeti. Widely performed, she receiverd the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 204 for her Violin Concerto. The Boston Symphony gave the American premiere of her Violin Concerto No. 2 (Scherben der Stille) with Leonidas Kavakss, and of the orchestral work Mannequin, which the orchestra co-commissioned. With Renaud Capuçon, they have performed her Cello Concerto, and later this summer (August 21) they will perform a sort orchestral work composed in 2020, subito con forza (suddenly, with force). The New Fromm Players performed her ParaMETAString for string quartet and tape. The strings generally perform “unearthly sonorities” that might strike the listener as “electronic,” while the electronic part of the score “refracts” the sounds of the acoustic instruments.
Argentine-born Mario Davidovsky (1934-2019) moved to the United States in 1960 and remained here the rest of his life. He was one of the composers who most actively pursued the mixture of acoustic and electronic music, seeking to make their fusion less mechanical than earlier such works had done. He succeeded especially in his extended series of Synchronisms for solo instrument with tape. (His Synchronisms No. 6, for piano and electronic sounds, won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for music.) His String Quartet No. 6, Fragments was one of his last works. Though he drew on quartet elements going back to Beethoven in his last two quartets, the title suggests the pointillistic texture of much of the work and the diverse sound materials that generally maintain their distance. (The performers included the two violins and the viola of the New Fromm Players, here joined by faculty member Astrid Schween, cello.)
The third quartet of the program was String Quartet No. 2 by the Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga (b. 1949) was commissioned by the Smith Quartet of the UK in 1994. It is cast in a single movement, though this presents several contracting texture from a galloping opening gesture of jagged rhythms to a gentler lullaby middle section reverting to the opening material that climaxes in a triumphant finish. (The performers in this quartet were TMC Fellows: Austin Wu and Arianna Brusubardis, violins; Yeonsu Lee, viola; and Benjamin Maxwell, cello.)
The one piece on the program that was not a string quartet was a challenging but enjoyable duo for pizzicato cello and piano by Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964), entitled Bebpo Riddle II. This was another commission from the Tanglewood Music Center and the Boston Symphnoy in honor of Ellen Highstein. The composer told me before the concert that she chose to write for a pizzicato cello because there was no entire piece for the instrument that was plucked throughout, and that this limitation offered all kinds of possible special effects, depending on where the string was plucked, how hard it was plucked, and many other possible variants. She wrote it to be played by Norman Fischer, the head of the chamber music program at Tanglewood, who was accompanied by pianist Bethany Pietroniro. The seven-minute work had a certain lighthearted quality just from the lively effect of the rapid pizzicatos. The range of sonorities was remarkable, from such a seemingly limited possibility, as was the athleticism required to make it entirely through the work, an exercise accomplished with bravura.
Concert 4: August 7, 10am, Ozawa Hall
The Sunday morning concert of the FCM is normally a place for smaller chamber works and the occasional solo; that was the case here. It mostly featured composers born in the 1970s.
Carlos Simon (b. 1986) composed a string quartet entitled Warmth from Other Suns¸ a reference to the highly regarded study by Isabel Wilkerson of the “great migration” of African-Americans from the southern states to the north, especially Chicago, during the Jim Crow era. Simon grew up in Atlanta and played the piano in the church where his father was the pastor. He attended Georgia State University and Morehouse College, later earning his doctorate in composition at the University of Michigan, where he studied with Michael Daugherty and Evan Chambers. He has toured as music director and keyboardist with Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday, including an appearance with the Boston Pops. Fellowships at the Sundance Institute and Gabriela Lena Frank’s Creative Academy of Music led to commissions with the Philadelphia Orchestra and others. The string quartet played here by the New Fromm Players came in a single 6-minute movement with warm harmonies that, to some degree, seem to have reflected the church music of his youth in a forward outlook. It was premiered in Detroit in February 2020.
Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1962, took up acoustic and electric guitar in his teens, then studied at the University of California, San Diego. His work is often influenced or shaped by literature, as is the case with the Shakespeare songs performed here. He has written for the Zohn Collective, originally a student ensemble at Eastman that was named in his honor. The first in the group heard here, Ineffable, was created as an instrumental piece for the Young Artists Competition of the National Flute Association, composed with the words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 17 (“Who will believe my verse in time to come?”) included during the act of composition, and later removed. The second song, Day, is a setting of possibly the most famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets, No. 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”). The last song, Night (Sonnet 27—“Weary with toil I haste me to my bed”) was composed for a violinist at Eastman who asked for a solo work; when Zohn was not satisfied with his ideas for solo violin, he asked to make it into a song. In all three of the settings, the soprano voice is closely linked to the flute in the ensemble, which also includes percussion, violin, and guitar. The solo part was ravishingly sung by soprano Emily Helenbrook.
Portuguese composer Andreia Pinto Correia (b.1971) was a Tanglewood Fellow in composition in 2009 and returned in 2010 and 2015 for performances of her works (the latter being the orchestral score Timaeus, commissioned for the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center. Her family consists of writers and scholars in Portugal, and, although she has relocated to the United States remains influenced by literary traditions of Iberia. Her Cântico (Canticle) for solo violin was co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony and Patty Plum Wylde. It was performed by Yevgeny Kutik, a Russian musician from Minsk, Belarus, who moved to this country with his family at the age of 5. In 2003 he performed with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops as winner of the BSO’s Young Artist Competition. He studied at the New England Conservatory, where he received his master’s degree. He played the Correia piece, a world premiere, with expressive elegance.
John Harbison (b. 1938) has been connected with the Boston Symphony and with Tanglewood, where he was a conducting student, much of his professional life. The BSO has commissioned eight works from him, including three of his symphonies. He was invited to contribute to the commissions in honor of Ellen Highstein at this festival but suggested that the third movement (Ricercar) from his Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001) would be an appropriate piece to play for the occasion. It is based on an old form of contrapuntal “searching for” the elaboration of musical ideas. The four-minute piece is intense, building to an especially difficult close. Piano Fellow Maciej Słapiński, from Poland, was in full command.
Andile Khumalo (b. 1978), from Durban, South Africa, started as a musician in a community music center, after which he studied with a German teacher at the University of Natal, then went on to Stuttgart, where he worked with Marco Stroppa and took master classes with Brian Ferneyhough, among others. In 2007 he entered the doctoral program at Columbia University, earning his doctorate under George Lewis, Tristan Murail, and Fabien Lévy. Now senior lecturer at the University of Witwerstrand in South Africa, his music is becoming heard widely. The quartet Cry Out (2009), for viola as the leading instrument, along with oboe, percussion, and piano, was commissioned for the Takefu International Music Festival in Japan. The viola takes a lead role, around with the other three instruments develop sonic areas that potentially trap it into submission over the course of its ten minutes. The viola, played commandingly by Rebecca Epperson, evaded snares set by oboist Elias Medina, percussionist Jennifer Marasti, and pianist Shalun Li. The four instruments find their way to a friendly conclusion.
Jesse Jones (b. 1978) has taught at the Oberlin Conservatory 2016. He was a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow in 2011; during his time here, he made close friendships with a number of vocalists also here that summer. One of them, Zachary Finkelstein, invited him to compose a new work, related to the lute song of the Elizabethan era. He has written that, although he has worked with many schools of contemporary music, including spetralism, microtonality, and so on, “I’ve come to realize that I retally do love old things: old forms, old texts, harmony, counterpoint, and I do try to engage with these tools in order to make them a valid expression of our time.” Bearing in mind a college friend, guitarist Dieter Hennings, he wrote his song Dark is Yonder Town for tenor and guitar to a text found in a 19th-century compilation of Scottish folk texts, Carmina Galedica–a folk text about a young girl coming of age and heading out into the world on her own, very similar to song texts set by John Dowland over 200 years earlier. Hennings played the guitar for this performance, and the Fellowship tenor Matthew Corcoran gave a gloriously free-wheeling, lyrical performance, with a high range that soared easily and a clear diction that made every word comprehensible. He told me later that he is generally aiming toward opera performance, where he will certainly be welcome, but I was happy to learn that he also loves the song repertory, because he is so clearly going to be a master thereof.
George Lewis (b. 1952) is one of the co-curators of the 2022 FCM. He is one of the most versatile creative artists around—composer. Trombonist, improvisor, teacher, historian, and more. He teaches at Columbia University. He does not accept that improvisation (so often regarded as a characteristic of black musicians) and avant-garde composition (so often credited to whites) are in any way in cultural opposition. He was involved in the creation of Voyager, a “software agent” that can be programmed to interact with human performers. While collaborating with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) over the course of a year, he experimented with movements from Schubert’s Octet, interleaving them with two of his own scores for improvising musicians. This seemed to introduce basic materials from the Schubert piece into the improvisatory score. After this experience, he worked in 2013 with Beethoven’s Septet, which had been a model for Schubert’s even to the character and tempo of the six movements in each. Schubert employed one instrument (a second violin) that Beethoven had not. And in working on this process, he created Born Obbligato, a musical work complex to the ear (even to one who is very familiar with either the Beethoven or the Schubert score; the new piece is cast in six movements, with the same relative tempos in moving through the work. The 25- minute work is very challenging to the seven players, requiring a conductor (Nicolò Umberto Foron) to shape it, which he did very handily. It was a fascinating experience, but I’d love to hear both works, one right after the other, to see how much of the cultural interaction is evident.
Concert 5: August 7, 8pm, Linde Center Studio E: Silent film scores by TMC composition fellows
For many years film music was regarded as purely sound effect music of purely commercial value, with little artistic significance. In the early stages of silent films, before the music could be wedded to the images of the film in a soundtrack, local musicians in cinemas worked on the piano or on an organ that might allow sound effects in addition to music. At first the local player would improvise over and over with each showing of the film, usually drawing on a collection of stock themes for such cinematic events as chase scenes, fights, patriotic flag-waving, love scene, and the like. There were collections of musical themes from the classics or popular song from which the theater organist could draw at will. Most of all, the score had to be performed live at every showing of the film, whether it was played by a single musician for (in the grandest cinemas for the most expensive films) with a full orchestra.
Tanglewood Fellowship composers have been given the opportunity to compose for a silent film passage and to hear it in a public performance. On this occasion the five composers here this summer learned about the process of writing music for films in the silent era from musicologist Martin Marks of MIT, who is an authority on silent film scores. Then a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Kid (1921), was made available with permission from the distributor Janus Films to create a new score—but not, I assume, to distribute it commercially.
Thus a showing was made available in the largest of the studios of Tanglewood’s Linde Center, but it still held only a modest percentage of the audience that could be accommodated in Ozawa Hall. Under the circumstances, tickets went very fast, and the hall was sold out well before the Sunday night showing.
The Kid is just under an hour long. It was divided into five timed segments, and each composer had to write music for roughly 12 minutes (this included music for the closing credits, which included not only the normal identification of the actors in the show but also the composer, conductors, and performers in the evening’s event. The five composers, in the chronological order, were David John Roche, David Evans, Ania Vu, Angela Elizabeth Slater, and Peter S. Shin. In addition to composing and orchestrating about 12 minutes of music, they also had to copy the orchestra parts for the musicians to play; all this had to be done in about two weeks. They scored for a standard silent film orchestra of four violins, two violas, two cellos, horn, trumpet, tuba, and percussion.
The actual event was great fun. Three conductors—Stefan Asbury and the two Fellows, Rita Castro Blanco and Nicolò Umberto Foron—each prepared a third of the film’s score and quickly changed places in front of the orchestra when their time came. Although it seemed to take a few minutes for each composer to find his or her feet, as events started to happen in the film, the musical ideas flourished and developed an effective emotional connection between screen and viewer. The earlier composers in the series had the opposite of creating themes that would be passed on to the later composers, so as to maintain expressive continuity (just as John Williams’s themes for specific images in the first films of the Harry Potter series are taken over by the composers responsible for later scores.)
The evening was a great success. It is a shame that copyright reasons enforce only a limited audience to see the result.
Concert 6: August 8, 8pm, Ozawa Hall
American premiere, (in concert) of George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence
This is the second occasion of which the distinguished British composer George Benjamin (b. 1960) has conducted an opera at Tanglewood in its American debut. Robert Spano first conducted his music here in 1996. Three years later he began his association with the Tanglewood Music Center, when he led the TMC Orchestra in two of his works. In 2000 Ellen Highstein invited him to direct the Festival of Contemporary Music. His orchestral song cycle Dream of the Song was commissioned by the BSO for the Music Center’s 75th anniversary. In August 2013 he conducted a concert performance of his opera Written on Skin.
That opera, like the new one, is set to a libretto the English dramatist Martin Crim. Both are drawn from stories from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance, and both involve the subjects highlighted in the title of the newest opera, love and violence. This new opera is based on Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, published in 1593, shortly after his mysterious early death on May 30 that year.
The opera falls generally into two parts. In the first King (Nathaniel Sullivan, baritone) devotes himself to his favorite, Gaveston (Dominik Belavy, baritone). Mortimer (Daniel McGraw, tenor) urges the King to stop wasting so much of his wealth on poetry and music for Gaveston, when his people are starving. Gaveston claims that Mortimer wants power for himself and is disgusted by the physical intimacy of the King and his favorite. Isabel, the Queen (Elizabeth Polese, soprano) is concerned about turmoil in the kingdom, and the future for her son (Edmond Rodriguez, tenor); she loves her husband, but agrees to work with Mortimer to deal with the problem of Gaveston. During a concert at court, Mortimer arrests Gaveston; as he is led away, the King realizes that he is no longer able to restrain arrest. Soon he learns of Gaveston’s murder. Isabel realizes that the King has no more allies; she announces that she is leaving to take their son to Mortimer for protection.
In the second half, Isabel and Mortimer attempt to prepare the boy to be king, as the old monarch is in prison now. Mortimer tries to persuade the King to give up the crown, finally getting him to do so by telling him that if he does not abdicate now, his son will never be king. The King surrenders the crown. Not long after a stranger is issued into the former king’s cell. To his fevered mind, he believes it to be Gaveston but then recognizes that this stranger has come to kill him (sung by the singer who previously sang Gaveston). Isabel and the Young King are attending a performance. The Young King tells his mother that Mortimer has been arrested. Their entertainment this evening will be to watch his execution.
Benjamin’s music is dramatic and richly colored, especially with a large percussion section that creates other-worldly sensations, reflecting atmosphere even more than emotion. His vocal lines cry out violence, but the love scenes—relatively few, to be sure—seem less impassioned. Part of the problem in the Tanglewood performance—which, in general, was terrific—is that a concert performance puts the singer’s right in front of Benjamin’s large orchestra that tends rather to drown them out. A good orchestra pit would help considerably, as well as all the blocking and gestures for the singers to make clear precisely what is happening at many points. I am very much hoping to see a fully staged production soon. (And soon is within the realm of possibility, since the opera was co-commissioned by seven major companies, and one of them, Covent Garden, has already recorded its performance for CD and DVD.)
Certainly the singers at Tanglewood were in fine more and handled the parts well, even including elements of acting, though standing in place, to give as much activity as they could to the proceedings. The TMC Orchestra requited itself magnificently, offering a fitting end to the 2022 Festival of Contemporary Music.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.