Admired Festival At Tanglewood Savors The Recent

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Seiji Ozawa Hall is the venue for the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. (Photo: Steve Rosenthal)
Seiji Ozawa Hall is the venue for the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. (Photo: Steve Rosenthal)
By Leslie  Kandell

LENOX, Mass. — Beginning July 21, the Tanglewood Music Festival split its activities for five days, as it does annually. While the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky in the 5,000-seat Koussevitzky Music Shed, the 1,000-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall put forth the prestigious, demanding Festival of Contemporary Music.

In past years, Shed programs usually made a connective gesture to new music — a 20th-century opening selection, say, or a renowned BSO commission like Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra — but this year the orchestra scheduled only greatest hits. Sunday’s opener, Variaciones concertantes by Ginastera, could be considered new because it’s unfamiliar. Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena led a spirited reading of the colorful work, but no way is the ink still wet on that 1953 piece.

Composer Steven Stucky had planned the festival when he died in February.
Composer Steven Stucky had planned the festival when he died in February.

The six-concert Festival of Contemporary Music is perhaps the most venerable concentration in the U.S. Composers, students, scholars, and publishers gather from around the country for small concerts threaded through the BSO schedule. Intermissions are for schmoozing and networking on the manicured grass. Locals and summer residents are pleased to discover that membership cards and lawn passes get them in free.

One of the Tanglewood community’s significant losses this year is Steven Stucky, who planned and coordinated this summer’s contemporary series and died last February at age 66, of brain cancer. Soof the phantom presences that hovered over the event — Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Paul Fromm, Paul Jacobs — Stucky’s was most prominent, and this festival was dedicated to him.

Norman Fischer paid tribute to Steven Stucky.
Cellist Norman Fischer. (Concert photos by Hilary Scott)

In his memory, Norman Fischer opened the first concert with Stucky’s complex, meditative Dialoghi for solo cello, composed in 2007 for his cellist friend Elinor Frey.  Her name is embedded in musical codes, in the manner of B-A-C-H and like pieces. Too bad Frey didn’t have a simpler name: Focus might have been on the music instead of the puzzles.

Stucky’s 2009 Chamber Concerto, which concluded the concert, generously showcases the orchestra’s sections. Harp and strings in high register seem to tell a story narrated by the clarinet. Muted horn continues it, and strings have pleasing melodies.

There are string quartets equal in beauty to the one from 2014 heard Friday by British former Stucky student Joseph Phibbs, but none are more beautiful. Astonished listeners exchanged comments like “stunning” and “marvelous.” But describing its sonorities and rhythms would not convey what made it the real thing. Gentle outreach of old to new, fluidity and suddenness, dissonance and chromatics — what does this tell you? Nothing. Wait for the piece on YouTube, or find a recording.

The young performers, inexplicably more dazzling and skilled each year, are Tanglewood Music Center fellows, who masterfully deliver new and difficult works with the eagerness of seeing a big future. An exciting “who’s that?” moment came when soprano Sarah Tuttle, from Michigan, sang “Song Offerings” (1985) by Jonathan Harvey, who died in 2012. Her dark tone color, no-shriek high notes and confidence were matched by articulation so clean that the translation of Bengali poetry by Nobel Prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore could actually be understood. Her name is sure to be heard again.

Erin Gee led and sang in the world premiere of her 'Mouthpiece 29.'
Erin Gee led and sang in the world premiere of her ‘Mouthpiece 29.’

Newest was the world premiere of Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Paul Jacobs Memorial Fund. (The entire festival, endowed by Paul Fromm, was originally called Fromm Week, and its pianist was the intrepid New York Philharmonic virtuoso Paul Jacobs, who died in 1983.) Erin Gee led an ensemble and sang. Maybe “sang” isn’t the right word. She whistled, clucked, gasped, peeped, and took the audience on her original adventure in sonority. The ideas and performance made some pieces from the 1990s sound old-fashioned.

The Fromm Foundation commission was Variations on a Summer Day, set to Wallace Stevens’ poetry by the Brooklyn lawyer Harold Meltzer, who, like Ives and Borodin, once held a day job. He has been adding to this 16-verse piece since 2012, widening its range of sound and emotion in a chamber ensemble of woodwinds, piano, and strings.

Mezzo-soprano Quinn Middleman was soloist in a new work by Harold Meltzer.
Mezzo-soprano Quinn Middleman was soloist in a new work by Harold Meltzer.

Music at this year’s festival suggests that atonality has gone out of style; Meltzer’s even has a 6/4 chord (in the last word of the setting of “words of the visible elements, and ours”). The music often follows images of the word: extended string tones for clouds, plucked ones for “Round and round goes the bell of the water,” and intervals for “Pass through the door and through the walls.” Quinn Middleman, from Washington state, was the compelling mezzo-soprano.

The final evening was Mostly Messiaen, beginning with a Prelude concert of Harawi, a 1945 song cycle based on a Peruvian version of the Tristan and Iseult myth: mad love and lurid, bloody death. It must be a fearsome task to learn an hour of passionate shouts and exotic noises. The cycle was divided among two pianists and four sopranos, one of whom was Lucy Shelton, a Tanglewood faculty member.

Four sopranos, including Lucy Shelton (right) performed Messiaen's 'Harawi.'
Four sopranos, including Lucy Shelton (right) performed Messiaen’s ‘Harawi.’

Harawi was composed four years after the Quartet for the End of Time and four years before the Turangalîla-symphonie (part 3 of this Tristan trilogy, which, with George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, concluded the second concert). It has the wild coloring, birdcalls, startling silences, riveting harmony, and luxuriant phrases of the Quartet.

Sunday evening, in the middle of it all, there was a moving memorial concert for the late beloved violinist, BSO concertmaster, teacher, and conductor Joseph Silverstein, who died last November. In addition to videos of Silverstein, an A-list of musicians performed, including Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, and Hilary Hahn. A similarly stellar group — Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Robert Levin, and André Previn — sent video remembrances. The music was from the 19th century. It may turn out to be the most beautiful event of the summer.

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