Adès’ Creative Choices Spell Success Despite Trim At New Music Fest

Violinist Anthony Marwood was soloist in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto under the baton of Thomas Adès. (Photos by Hilary Scott)

LENOX, Mass. — At least it happened.

At the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, everything felt smaller. Reduced to six long weekends, 2021 BSO concerts were performed to half-attendance audiences in the voluminous, open-air Koussevitsky Music Shed. There were no vocal concerts and no intermissions.

The year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, a standard bearer for new voices in music since the 1950s, took place in the Shed July 25 and 26 for just three concerts, rather than its usual half dozen. In 2020, the contemporary series didn’t happen at all, so this abbreviated festival, under post-pandemic restrictions, still felt like a blessing. As always, the music was performed entirely by Tanglewood Music Center Fellows.

The contemporary festival was curated for the third time by the BSO’s artistic partner, Thomas Adès. Although this year’s sample size was small, Adès strove for range: a dozen composers from seven countries, with thirteen works in all from two women and ten men. Composer Matthew Aucoin recently wrote that Adès was “one of the most influential musicians of the early 21st century — for his fellow composers in particular.” It’s hard to argue with that, and it gives oversized importance to Adès’ choices here.

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But no judgments should be rendered for Adès’ choices for 2021. First, after a year off, many old promises had to be kept. Adès barely had a dozen slots to fill. He chose composers born from the 1920s through the 1980s. Almost all the works were composed after 1990. Judith Weir, Andrew Norman, Sean Shepherd, and György Kurtág — along with Adès — had all been previously featured in Adès’ repertory choices for the contemporary festival. Adès added works by Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho, Per Nørgård, Jeffrey Mumford, György Ligeti, Andrew Haig, and Xinyang Wang (b. 1989), whom Adès met through the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award competition in 2020.

Conducting Fellow Kevin Fitzgerald leading Tanglewood Music Center Fellows.

The Festival of Contemporary Music always gets jammed into the BSO’s regular Tanglewood schedule, but this year’s programs — a Sunday morning concert, then Monday afternoon and evening — felt more isolated than ever.

Sunday’s opener, well attended even though the enormous Shed seemed empty, featured four works. It began with Shepherd’s Seagulls on High, the slow movement from his 2009 Cleveland Orchestra commission Wanderlust. An ensemble piece with a swirling, hovering effect, it served as an overture to the festival.

It was followed by Haig’s Replacing, a joint commission by the Tanglewood Music Center and the Gewandhaus Orchester, which premiered in Leipzig in June. Conducting fellow Adam Hickox led the ensemble. No movements were marked in this 20-minute piece, but multiple distinct moods unfolded: an extended pianissimo percussion figure to open; a brassy Ives texture that followed; an exotic pastoral section with congas; and, at the end, a buzzing, unison dischord that coalesced, then dissolved into noise. The part writing was dense, multiple modulations heightening the atmosphere.

The world premiere of Wang’s string ensemble piece, Between the Resonating Abysses, revealed an engaging, integrated compositional language. Conducting fellow Kevin Fitzgerald led the highly textured work, a unique imagining of what a string ensemble can sound like. Remembering the tragic events of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, near where the composer grew up in Guangyuan, Wang uses swirling atmospheric textures reminiscent of Debussy — with a jagged edge. It looked like a tough conducting task. Everyone has an independent part, but despite the density and shifting tempos, Fitzgerald didn’t miss a downbeat. The players needed that.

Saariaho’s Graal théâtre stands as an inspired representative of a contemporary concerto. Realized here in bravura style by violinist Momo Wong and conducted by Fitzgerald, Graal théâtre is a reworking of the Grail legend. Wong and the TMC orchestra performed the work’s chamber version (1997). The piece premiered in 1994 with Gidon Kremer as its first champion.

Saariaho’s international reputation rests comfortably with her stage works, notably the opera L’amour de loin. She has had a long relationship with the BSO, and the orchestra will premiere her orchestral Saarikoski Songs this coming season.

Graal théâtre has the virtuosic challenges soloists thrive on and the sonic attractiveness audiences ease into. An extended two-movement concerto with single instruments on a part, the orchestral colors are spare. In this chamber version, the brass and winds gain some advantage over the single strings.

The solo part is virtuosic, overwhelming the ensemble in most sections. The two movements, Delicato and Impetuoso, are as different as their markings suggest. Even the structure of the second movement seems impetuous. It begins with a cadenza, and has multiple soloistic diversions throughout.

A sense of play characterized much of the festival’s middle program on Monday afternoon. Although its breadth of voices — from Kurtág to Weir to Adès to Norman — transcended a single mood, a pervasive sense of fun filled the Shed.

First, Nørgård’s 60-second Hut Ab! Then, Adès’ own The Origin of the Harp, which includes no harp; Kurtág’s Hommage à Paganini, consisting of un-notated palm-banging along the keyboard; Norman’s concert-closing Frank’s House, for two pianos and junkyard percussion instruments.

Nørgård’s whisky-shot Hut Ab! (Hat Off) certainly set the comic mood. It pits two clarinetists echoing each other outrageously in hockets for the brief time it takes the audience to get settled. A one-minute work makes a perfect concert opener. Those in the know are alert. Those who aren’t get instilled with a sense of shame for having missed out, and pay attention for the remainder of the performance. TMC clarinetists Jakob Lenhardt and Sangwon Lee traded at least a dozen leads, which also marked modulations, in this energetically wired duet from 1988.

Jeffrey Mumford’s a garden of flourishing paths, composed in 2008, was written as a centenary tribute to Mumford’s mentor, Elliott Carter. Eight short movements were distinctly Carter-like – angular, with a disinterest in tonality/atonality — but even more concise. The quintet – flute, viola, cello, percussion, and piano – needed conductor Adam Hickox. Textures shifted from movement to movement as different instruments stood out or joined forces. A taut surface spread over richer depths. A short Sonoro movement, a duet for piano (Barry Tan) and percussion (Jack Rutledge), was stirring. The last movement (Sparso) epitomized them all: Sparse indeed, but not detached.

Jeffrey Mumford, right, receiving applause after a performance of his ‘a garden of flourishing paths.’

In Adès’ The Origin of the Harp (1994), three clarinets, three violas and three cellos are joined by a single percussionist with enough gear for three, including water percussion. The work was inspired by a contemporary painting depicting the transformation of a nymph into a harp. The 1990s were a particularly fruitful period for this always-fruitful composer, with breakthrough works including the chamber setting Living Toys, Asyla (for orchestra), the chamber opera Powder Her Face, and the quartet Arcadiana.

Adès also ignores the tonal/atonal dichotomy, which seems like a good idea. Unusual textures in the winds, pizzicato and high harmonics in the strings, and the water-like sounds in the percussion aimed for an atmosphere of metamorphosis. The mythological subject aside, this is not the high romanticism of Adès’ O Albion, but thorny, eventful writing, offering only brief clues to larger ideas and then moving on. Dramatic conclusions to phrases suddenly appear from no phrase at all — illuminating what preceded.

Selections from Kurtág’s ten-volume Játékok (Games) served as homage. Five works from the composer’s vast musical notebooks were realized by pianists Mathilde Handelsman and Stephen Drury. Xin He’s offstage horn sounded a melancholy echo in the last of the five short movements.

Kurtág (b. 1926) is still a working composer, and his comprehensive collection of notebooks, Játékok, is brimming with works yet to be realized. Two pianos onstage provided a visual reminder of the composer’s closest collaborator, his wife Márta, who died in 2019. The five selections were lovely and brief, ending with Kurtág’s “Hommage à Paganini,” 30 seconds of palm playing, player’s choice, up and down the keyboard.

Handelsman was joined by Barry Tan for Weir’s Ardnamurchan Point, a misty tone poem conjuring the Hebrides coast. Norman’s tribute to Frank Gehry, Frank’s House (2015), evokes the discombobulation of Gehry’s Los Angeles home, a confusing mix of high and low culture. Two Steinways, lids off, were posed side-by-side incongruously centerstage, keys facing the audience. They sat in the middle of an urban vacant lot: chain-link fence, wooden pallets, paper bags and lots of garbage can–sounding percussion.

The quartet — Drury and Yukiko Takagi on pianos, with percussionists Ben Cornavaca and David Riccobono — hammed it up. The pianists played with some extended techniques, together and alone. The percussionists ripped bags, crumpled paper, made shocking trash crashes, forced the pianists to play musical Red Rover, and mostly disrupted anything remotely serious. Frank’s House makes for perfect festival entertainment – all flash and crash, none of that brooding artist stuff.

An ensemble performing Andrew Norman’s ‘Frank’s House.’

Monday’s concluding program featured Nørgård’s Drømmespiel (Dream Play), Ligeti’s violin concerto, and a film/music presentation composed by Steve Reich, Reich/Richter. Drømmespiel offered a sequence of warring episodes. A half dozen dream sequences, some lucid, some not, had contrasting textures, tempos and moods. TMC fellow Kevin Fitzgerald conducted.

Ligeti’s violin concerto complemented Saariaho’s Graal théâtre, performed Monday. The Ligeti was conducted by Adès, his only stage appearance of the festival, joined by the outstanding violinist Anthony Marwood. Both works, from the same decade, were brutally challenging — rigorous bowing techniques, strange pitch after strange pitch needing articulation, intense relationships with stage-mates.

Marwood’s own expansive range was enhanced microtonally by ocarinas. The trio of ocarinas even stood during the fourth-movement Passacaglia, accenting their place as occasional soloists. In five stirring movements, Ligeti builds a disturbingly arch sonic bubble, and stays in it. Marwood shone in many passages, but particularly in the virtuosic, elegiac aria that opened the second movement.

Ligeti creates such a demanding pitch-world — some players were covering their ears, not for volume but for the shrieking, stretched tones — that when the pressure relents even a little, the tension vanishes. Adès contributed a culminating cadenza, as Ligeti suggests to other composers in the score. It was more like a coda – in ideas, structure and length. The orchestra returned for one final quiet measure.

Reich’s Reich/Richter was premiered in New York’s The Shed in June 2019. It is the soundtrack to Moving Picture, a collaboration with visual artist Gerhard Richter and filmmaker Corinna Belz. The work bears Reich’s elongated phrases, powered melodically here by a pair of nonstop marimbas. It is a meditative, undulating score, made much less interesting by the visual accompaniment.

The music grows through long, stretched notes, expanding into phrases, slowly coalescing for the listener. The video opens with an entire screen of horizontal colored lines, changes to complex shapes with kaleidoscopic symmetry, then lazily returns to the original stripes. Over the span of a half-hour, one had to turn away to focus on the music, and to maintain sanity.

Stefan Asbury conducting Steve Reich’s ‘Reich-Richter.’

Although not officially part of the Festival of Contemporary Music, the world premiere of John Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 2 on July 24 in the Shed provided another facet to the new-music weekend. Anne-Sophie Mutter, the dedicatee, realized the demanding solo part beautifully, and the composer conducted. Mutter was supported by BSO principal harpist Jessica Zhou, who joined her at the front of the stage.

The concerto is a substantial work, leaning heavily on the soloist. It sounds aggressively quirky. Multiple cadenzas are sprinkled throughout, and the four listed movements are distinguished by changing moods, not pauses. The soloist dominates, interspersed by several harp duets and a timpani duet (with BSO principal Timothy Genis) that leads to a late cadenza. At the work’s climax, Mutter played alone, as softly and slowly as possible.

This second violin concerto — Gil Shaham has championed the first (1974/98) — joins concertos by Williams for cello, harp, tuba, bassoon, flute, trumpet, and clarinet, a substantial catalog that complements his supersized catalog of popular film scores.

Select programs from the 2021 BSO Tanglewood season are available for streaming at BSO/Now.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for Gannett New England, Leonore Overture, and Musical America. Follow @PowersKeith; email to