Tanglewood’s New Music Fest Honors Enduring Legacy

Tanglewood composers, summer 2014
At Tanglewood, composers from top left: John Adams, Michael Gandolfi, Bernard Rands. Row 2: Charlotte Gray, Benjamin Scheuer, Roger Sessions. Rolf Martinsson. Row 3: John Harbison, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse.
By Leslie Kandell

LENOX, Mass. – The annual Festival of Contemporary Music bifurcates Tanglewood for five days each year. In the Koussevitzky Music Shed, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs great standards of the literature for picnickers and stargazers. Elsewhere on the busy Berkshires estate, talented fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, coached by faculty and orchestra members, play difficult chamber music of the last half-century or so – up to, say, two weeks ago.

Stefan Asbury conducting Michael Gandolfi's 'As Above.'
Stefan Asbury conducting Michael Gandolfi’s ‘As Above.’

This year’s six uncrowded concerts (July 17 to 21) took place in morning, afternoon, and weeknight slots in the 1,200-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall. Attended by experts, composers, pass holders, and perplexed tourists, they belied the term “festival.” No cotton candy, no balloons. This year’s music was composed by former Tanglewood fellows, from this summer back to the Music Center’s inception 74 years ago.

Current co-directors John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi were represented, modestly, by Parody Fantasia, Harbison’s angular, sparkling 1968 piano solo, and As Above, Gandolfi’s fascinating 2005 work for mixed ensemble – delightful despite being deprived of its originally planned video.

For someone whose prestigious operatic setting of The Great Gatsby sports great swing tunes, Harbison can be a remarkably uncompromising composer. His scores, like Elliott Carter’s, look clear and beautiful on the page, reflecting an organized mind. But for all Harbison’s credentials and sensible talks about how to approach new music, some of his pieces – like Parody — suggest a longing for the Schoenberg era, when serial compositions were aggressively jagged and listeners sat restlessly, with furrowed brows.

As Above, short, motoric, and catchy in several ways, is the rare ensemble piece that one looks forward to hearing again soon – maybe immediately. (Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony conductor who founded Tanglewood, would have played it twice, as he often did with new music.) Without gimmickry or pandering, it is, like Gandolfi’s other works, inviting and accessible. Stefan Asbury, head of the conducting program, led it to a fare-thee-well.

Composer Charlotte Bray accepts applaus with conductor Canellakis.
Composer Charlotte Bray accepts applause with conductor Canellakis.

Two world premieres of commissions by the Music Center were Voices by Benjamin Scheuer (born in 1987) and Folk Songs, a cycle of arrangements by Bernard Rands, in celebration of his 80th birthday. Voices, for two widely separated wind quintets, displayed a refined cacophony of instrumental sounds. (It was, after all, an exploration of voices.)

With squeaks, belches, kazoo sounds, and the like, the good-humored instrumental conversation took on a life of its own, as if players were responding to one another and making it up as they went along. Once the audience caught on, there were smiles and chuckles.

Unlike Scheuer, Rands did not study at Tanglewood, but he has composed several pieces commissioned by the Music Center, served as a guest coach, and chaired the composition department in 1996. The well-known tunes for singer (on July 20, three women divided the songs) and small ensemble, draw on his childhood in Wales and Yorkshire; they are unadorned and arranged with autumnal sweetness. Rands knows this fach (“The Water is Wide,” “Ar Hyd y Nos”) in his gut – as did at least half the audience – and his mixed ensemble suggested Berio’s Folk Songs. Karina Canellakis, who led Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness on July 21, the next night, was a sensitive, unmannered conductor. The audience sighed with pleasure.

Violinist Sarah Silver and conductor Daniel Cohen perform Mackey's violin concerto.
Violinist Sarah Silver and conductor Daniel Cohen perform Mackey’s violin concerto.

For the final evening, the entire orchestra of fellows was crammed onto the stage. Asbury explained that the program was about homage: Roger Sessions’ to the Boston Symphony centenary in 1981, Steven Mackey’s to his mother’s death, Bray’s to a power station in her native England, and John Adams’ to the musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky.

With the passage of time, the raw severity of the Sessions’ Concerto for Orchestra, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize, is beginning to soften, its musical trajectory more possible to follow, although it is still nowhere as inviting as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, also composed for the BSO.

Mackey’s 2008 violin concerto, Beautiful Passing, shows not only his love for his mother but also that he is growing up and can be effective without being cute. The dignity of the work, played by the enormously able violinist Sarah Silver, extended from the rich low textures of her instrument to hints of final human statements, as cadenzas floated quietly into the stratosphere.

Trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger plays Martinnson with Nelsons and the BSO.
Trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger plays Martinsson’s concerto with Nelsons and the BSO.

Unusual for this mini-festival is its first significant resonance with the big programs in the Shed. BSO music director-designate Andris Nelsons, completing a two-week visit here, did not confine himself to Beethoven and Brahms. On July 19, he introduced to the orchestra a jazzy trumpet concerto by Rolf Martinsson, performed by his snazzy friend, Tanglewood newcomer Hakan Hardenberger. Did Nelsons groove on this piece? Did he ever. On the next program (July 20) was Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, which begins delicately and gathers steam till the explosive end – like Bolero, as a matter of fact, and the audience even cheered.

Martinsson and Rouse in the Boston Symphony? The future arrives! Bring it on.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.