IN: Reviews

FCM Day 2: Ruminative

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Inasmuch as the expected reviews from our regular reporter are overdue, we are happy to publish this account.

by Jean-François Louis

Anna Thorvaldsdottír

Day two of the Contemporary Music Festival at Tanglewood, and what a difference a day made. After the electrifying enthusiasm of the music of Gabriela Lena Frank and Béla Bartok on the first day we were transported into the frigid Northern stillness that infuses the music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Here everything is quiet and contemplative.

She wrote Reminiscence, a set of seven short poems for piano, in 2017. Thorvaldsdottir likes to expand the possibilities for instruments beyond the ways they are normally used. In the case of the piano, that involves hitting, plucking and caressing the strings with bare hands or mallets. The pianist, Shaoai Ashley Zhang, did a wonderful job of juggling these techniques, evoking frozen tundra, sparkling ice crystals, maybe whale songs and distant rumblings of thunder. An insistently repeated note in the middle range anchored the piece like the drone of a bagpipe.

In Spectra (also 2017), for violin (Archer Brown), viola (Nathan Emans) and cello (Yong-Jun Lee), Thorvaldsdottir again transported us into a contemplative world; a slow contrapuntal dance sustained by the ruminative drone of the cello, broken by screeching of strings reminiscent of sea gulls, gave way to the gentle lapping of waves.

An older piece by György Kurtág: Hommage à Mihály András (1978) rounded out the first half. Zili Sha (violin I), Sheena Lan (violin II), Kelly Avila (viola) and Ji Sun Jung (cello) responded masterfully to the demands of this set of short pieces, each barely one minute long, but each involving a different mood and a different set of technical difficulties, yet all partook of a unified whole. Clearly, the two Thorvaldsdottir works had come from the same musical tradition as Kurtág’s, and I found it really interesting to hear them juxtaposed.

Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrim (2010), Aequilibria (2014) and (2013) required larger ensembles. Similarities eclipsed differences. Each had a very slow tempo and drone-like bass parts with flitting notes above. Slow glissandos and microtones were frequent, as were unusual sounds produced by rubbing, scratching instruments, or using mallets on piano strings and bows on xylophone keys. It resulted in a rather meditative atmosphere with apparent allusions to oceans, open spaces and whistling winds.

Conductors Stephen Drury and Agata Zajac effectively guided the wonderful young musicians through the complexities.

Jean-François Louis is a retired atmospheric physicist and amateur pianist, chorister, bonsai grower and cook. He grew up in Belgium playing duets with his father but has spent most of his adult life in the US.

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  1. How wonderful to have this review, a last-minute request, yet so well executed. May we have more from this contributor.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — August 6, 2023 at 2:11 pm

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