In Their Diverse Styles, 4 Women Composers Affirm Music’s Vitality

Hindustani vocalist Saili Oak and TMC Fellows Tiffany Wee, Sage Park, Elizabeth Doubrawa, and Benjamin Fryxell performed Reena Esmail’s ‘Ragmala.’

LENOX, Mass. — It’s gonna be okay.

The composer/curators for this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood — four women from the corners of the world — say so. With their work.

Tebogo Monnakgotla, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir — four distinct voices, each with dozens of major published works, rich with energy.

Emblematic of a sturdy generation of artists, each of them embeds her work with traditions and choices. Their training and technique are supremely sophisticated — scores for all of the works were available, all precise and creative. They love the sound of humans and instruments, and the art form. Poetry and nature are common inspirations.

Agata Zając conducting Tebogo Monnakgotla’s ‘Toys – or the wonderful world of Clara’

The composers were each given a chamber program to curate, and the festival’s closing orchestral program featured one larger work. Additional pieces were scattered throughout the festival, which has run continuously for almost nine decades. There were seven Festival of Contemporary Music concerts over the weekend, in addition to the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts in the Shed.

The new music festival has taken many forms, and almost all of the notable composers of the past century have had some presence here. Aaron Copland, Gunther Schuller, and Oliver Knussen directed the festival over multiple seasons each, but recent decades have seen various curatorial iterations, some single-composer, some tag-team.

Performances were realized by the extraordinary Tanglewood Music Center Fellows, and in particular the half-dozen select Fromm Players. Throughout a weekend that offered myriad styles, the accomplished and adventurous TMC players were a unifying thread.

Monnakgotla and Esmail were on campus and participated in a festival-opening discussion as well as Music Center workshops. Illness and visa difficulties prevented Frank and Thorvaldsdottir from attending. Their absence diminished the collegiality of the festival, usually a highlight.

Michael Gandolfi, Ania Vu, Tebogo Monnakgotla, and Reena Esmail took part in a conversation about contemporary music at Tanglewood. (Photos by Hilary Scott)

Additional new music concerts showcased works of genuine substance by Errollyn Wallen, Sally Beamish, and Ania Vu, along with a single remembrance of the late Kaija Saariaho. The Boston Symphony concerts also spoke to the robust future: This weekend alone included contemporary works by Ellen Reid, Julia Wolfe, and Agata Zubel.

Tebogo Monnakgotla (b. 1972) was raised in Uppsala and shares South African heritage with her Swedish upbringing. She often sets poetry: Rimbaud and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo’s works were featured at the festival, but she has also composed pieces to texts written by Li Li, Göran Malmqvist, Derek Walcott, and others. Her catalog dates to the 1990s, with a ballet, an opera, more than a dozen orchestral pieces, and two dozen chamber works.

Monnakgotla’s chamber program was beautifully balanced, featuring works from earlier (2008) and later (2020s) in her catalog. The concert included serious settings (like Companion, a solo adjunct piece to a recent violin concerto), and antic (the rambunctious fractured fairy tales of Toysor the wonderful world of Clara, dedicated to her daughter, namesake of Clara Schumann). The String Trio balanced equitably as well, exploring the compatibility of the violin, viola, and cello.

Oboists answer one another on screen and in the orchestra in Reena Esmail’s ‘RE|Member.’

Two literary settings, one with singer (impressive soprano Juliet Schlefer, Le Dormeur du val), the other an instrumental setting of Shakespeare’s aubade “It Is the Lark That Sings” from Romeo and Juliet, showed Monnakgotla at her most inventive, with striking word-painting of the text juxtaposed with probing, inquisitive instrumental writing. Her sound suggests an informed awareness of European modernism, with angular with unexpected turns.

The most intense dive into Monnakgotla’s music was a setting for baritone and orchestra, Un Clin d’oeil (2018), with poems by Rabearivelo, sung alternately by Rolfe Dauz and Kevin Douglas Jasaitis. The ambiguous emotional drive of Rabearivelo’s enigmatic verses was especially well supported by Monnakgotla’s imaginative score. The soloists mostly struggled to stay above the 90-plus instrumentalists onstage in intimate Ozawa Hall, and the performance wasn’t a triumph. But the work could be.

American composer Reena Esmail, based in Los Angeles, presented music at the intersection of her Juilliard/Yale training and the Hindustani raag style that she has come to embrace. It’s a rich mix. Esmail (b. 1983) brought her mentor and collaborator Saili Oak, a Hindustani vocalist, whose interpretations of several settings were the most direct example of the composer’s cross-tradition method. The extended melismatic lines of the raag buttressed the music presented here; Oak’s elegant, flowing interpretations gave listeners a sense of those sturdy underpinnings.

Esmail’s string quartet Ragamala also derives its textures and melodies from various raags, which Oak sang as movement interludes, offering startling moments of similarity and contrast. Pranayam, for oboe and piano, deftly blended a raag with the lengthy articulated lines of the oboe.

A work to summarize the pandemic experience? Esmail’s RE|Member (2021) might be the one. RE|Member, opening the bracing orchestral program at the end of the contemporary festival, laps itself. It opens with a video of a solo oboist, shown above the silent orchestra. After that Zoom meeting, the orchestra plays a rambunctious, nostalgic romp through various styles. At the conclusion, the video returns, this time in duet with a spotlighted oboe partner, standing in the orchestra. It was a rush of a concert opener, offering a poignant but confident observation on making music alone and making music together.

A trio played ‘New Gates’ by the late Kaija Saariaho.

A program with five of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s chamber works offered insights into her style but made for a concert with few contrasts. Serenity, austerity, and solemnity were the unifying sonic thread running through Reminiscence (2017, for piano), Spectra (2017, for string trio), and three chamber ensemble works: Hrím (2010), Aequilibria (2014), and (2013).

Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977) included on her program Kurtág’s second string quartet, which uses the same technique (from 1978) and so did not enliven the atmosphere. It’s demanding stuff in its meditative simplicity. An entire concert, during siesta hour on a steamy Berkshires afternoon, invited deep contemplation. Several audience members embraced the invitation.

The space in Thorvaldsdottir’s music rarely contracts — listeners can enjoy a game of chance, with time to anticipate pitches. Some notes were actually mute, realized only by bowing movements or suggestion. Thorvaldsdottir’s works are purposeful (the scores are fascinatingly detailed, and not just for the extended techniques), with the faint volume rigidly focusing the listener’s intensity.

Metacosmos (2017) proved a sensation on the orchestral program. In one taut movement, it built momentum with almost comic deliberation. Conductor Agata Zając moved in slo-mo. Initially, sound barely disturbed the void. Slowly and intensely, a looming energy marched into the room, single pitches emerging from around the orchestra. When the thunder finally sounded, the tension snapped, then diminished gradually, leaving violin solo. It was an orchestral tour-de-force, showing why Thorvaldsdottir’s popularity with A-game orchestras like New York and Berlin is no mystery. This music would complement any orchestral program. (The BSO performs her Archora in 2024.)

Stefan Asbury conducted a work by Gabriela Lena Frank.

The festival’s opening concert, works of Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1974), included the string quartet Milagros, a sonata for four-hands piano, and an aggressive cello quartet, Las Sombras de los Apus (1998–99). The festival closed with her concerto for orchestra, Walkabout (2017).

Frank writes evocative notes about most of her work, almost always invoking her South American roots. Milagros (2010) explores the ubiquitous local shrines dotting the Andean foothills. Written for the Chiara Quartet, it’s a major work — eight picaresque movements — that would sturdily take its place in any quartet’s rep list.

Frank’s Sonata Serrana No. 1 (2012) looked like a lot of fun to play. It turned four-hands into two discrete instruments, holding conversations ranging from coy to cataclysmic. Four substantial movements sounded idiomatic, organic, but not virtuosic. There were no extended techniques involved, and none required to make this joyful musical interaction for two players (Fifi Zhang, William Shi) and one bench. Frank’s cello quartet, the most experimental of her works instrumentally, sounded just as ferociously tactile as the frozen driving rains of the Andes must feel.

Ferocious? Tactile? The major work on the closing orchestral concert, Walkabout, was that and more. Premiered by the Detroit Symphony in 2017, it’s a genuine concerto for orchestra, with bravura unison playing in the strings, tribal energy in the back, winds evoking nearly every aspect of life, and an inviting string quartet buried into one of the movements. Each of the four movements rose to a romp, a show of exuberance to conclude the weekend.