In A Swift Turn, Festival Honors Knussen Legacy

To wind up the Festival of Contemporary Music, Thomas Adès conducted his piano concerto ‘In Seven Days’ with the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra and soloist Kirill Gerstein. (Concert photos by Hilary Scott)
By Leslie Kandell

LENOX, Mass. – Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director who dreamed up the idea of Tanglewood, was an active enabler of composers. New commissions were promptly repeated despite audience hostility, and some beloved repertory staples were born – Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, for starters.

Thomas Adès: composer, conductor, pianist, arranger. (Brian Voce)

That commitment continues at Tanglewood, the summer home where the orchestra performs, teaches student fellows, and presents a yearly five-day Festival of Contemporary Music, with new and late 20th-century works coached by Tanglewood Music Center faculty members, many from the orchestra. Performances are by fellows in Seiji Ozawa Hall, the Berkshire estate’s chamber-music venue. Some Tanglewood regulars avoid these concerts, leaving parking spaces for others who travel distances to take in the glut of recent works and to hobnob with composers, soloists, publishers, and like-minded musical adventurers.

This year’s incarnation, July 26-30, was directed by Thomas Adès, the award-winning British composer, conductor, pianist, and arranger, who is serving a three-year tenure in the newly created position of BSO Artistic Partner. The director curates and develops the contemporary mini-festival’s programs, based on his judgment and connections to colleagues.

Adès, 47, was an impressive presence. A mature and focused leader, he knows just what he wants and conducts with care, precision, and strength. The Festival of Contemporary Music concerts he curated had a prologue on July 22, when he led the Boston Symphony at the Koussevitzky Music Shed in a suite he made from Powder Her Face, his tuneful 1995 opera.

And in a two-piano Ozawa Hall recital two days after the new-music festival officially ended, Adès and Kirill Gerstein, this year’s Koussevitzky Artist, played Adès’s 2009 Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face. The paraphrase was in no way the same piece as the suite; it is more abstract, more dissonant and, unoperatically, less deferential to the listener.

The mini-festival’s final concert July 30 was a full-orchestra performance by the astonishingly professional TMC fellows. Its four pieces represented aspects of the preceding chamber concerts, beginning with a change of order typical of these programs. There were last-minute rehearsal conflicts, preparation difficulties, musicians held up by visas. Stuff happens.

Gemma New conducted Gerald Barry’s ‘Diner’ in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.

Diner, the brief opening work by Gerald Barry, an Irish colleague of Adès, refers to night paintings by Edward Hopper. It did not evoke the haunting cheerlessness of the paintings, but it was redeemingly pleasant. Its clear reading was led by Gemma New, the New Zealand-born resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, and one of the only two conducting fellows who led public performances here. She is using her position well, getting more definite each time she appears.

Diner was followed by Adès’ piano concerto, In Seven Days, which refers to the biblical account of Creation. The subject offers opportunities for episodic color changes, and Adès, in opera mode, set off colorful winds with whispering violins. The ponderous but not bravura piano writing used the instrument’s full range, fulminating and subsiding, but the piece ended gently. (Maybe that was meant to be hopeful.) As an encore, Gerstein played a twinkling mazurka by Adès.

The unplanned next piece, excerpts from the opera Where the Wild Things Are, was by Oliver Knussen, the festival’s hovering presence and Adès’ friend, colleague, and countryman, who died July 8. Olly – no one at Tanglewood called him anything else – had been a fellow in the early 1970s and rose to the role of festival director from 1986 to 1993. Greatly admired by students, he returned later to conduct or attend premieres of his compositions.

Alexandra Smither sang selections from Oliver Knussen’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’
performed in tribute to the composer who died July 8. Stefan Asbury conducted.

Because of short preparation time, the opera’s high soprano role of bad-boy Max was split between Alexandra Smither and Elena Villalón. They did amazingly well, but weren’t alone in their achievement; orchestra players had even less time to learn their parts. Stefan Asbury, a member of Leonard Bernstein’s last conducting class and head of the TMC conducting program, led the work with absolute calm, ensuring that no one lost control.

The concert concluded with Adès leading Lutosławski’s dramatic, pounding Symphony No. 3, which the composer denied was a response to the Polish Solidarity movement and events in the Soviet Union at the time it was written in 1983. (Overheard: “How do you say ‘macho’ in Polish?”)

Also extending the TMC’s contemporary music programming beyond its published dates was the July 23 world premiere by the orchestra of In America, a song cycle commissioned from Michael Gandolfi, former fellow and now head of the composition department. A specific request to the composer was that he model the cycle after Bernstein’s 1977 Songfest, performed by the Boston Symphony on Aug. 4.

Gandolfi’s attractive music, with its edgy choice of poems, showed that he had given the Bernstein close, intelligent study. Both works are in three segments, with six TMC singers who perform in varied combinations. Both contain poetry whose subject is of its time but not easily acceptable as art song. For example, “To What You Said,” the most famous poem in Songfest, by Walt Whitman, is about his feelings of love toward male patients he tended. Other poems deal with racism and with leaving a spouse. And the most appealing music refers to the harmonies and Latin rhythms of West Side Story.

In America sets texts about current political problems and divisions in a way that arouses similarly cautious feelings in the listener, such as, “Better not go there. You could get in trouble.” The music has more charm than Bernstein’s classical mode – as Gandolfi’s usually does. If Koussevitzky were around, he probably would have performed it twice.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.

Nadine Sierra, from left, Isabel Leonard, Kelley O’Connor, Nicholas Phan, Elliot Madore, and Eric Owens were soloists
in the Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Songfest,’ Bramwell Tovey conducting.