The opening concert on Tanglewood’s 2009 Festival of Contemporary Music on Friday featured several works by established composers and a TMC commission. This year’s festival is curated by Augusta Read Thomas. Rather than creating a unified theme for the five days of performances, Thomas has put together a varied group of offerings. In her opening remarks in the TFCM program booklet, she emphasizes,”This is not a festival with a house style.” Instead, what has thus far unified the proceedings are well-prepared, dedicated performances by youthful yet artistically focused musicians.
Christopher Rouse‘s percussion ensemble piece Ku-Ka-Illimoku is a great curtain-raiser: splashy, noisy, and abundantly virtuosic. Based on Hawaiian ceremonial drumming, it provides metric twists, turns, and overlays aplenty. Rouse hasn’t composed a piece for percussion ensemble since Bonham back in the late 1980s; one wishes he’d return to the genre.
Matthias Pintscher‘s Lieder und Schneebilder proved a tougher nut to crack. These settings of e.e. cummings poems for soprano and piano (sometimes prepared) are almost willful in their angular deployment. While cummings’ idiosyncratic typography seems to invite close attention to phrasing and line breaks, Pintscher’s use of ellisions and sprechstimme often seemed problematically placed. Still, Pintscher excels at creating evocative timbres and complexly hued harmonies.
Flutist Brook Ferguson, who was one of the leading lights at last year’s TFCM (devoted to Elliott Carter), was the soloist in Pierre Boulez‘s mémoriale (…explosante-fixe..Originel). Once again, Ferguson wowed with impressive control, beautiful tone throughout the flute’s compass, and attention to the score’s myriad details. The ensemble made the piece sound effortless (which it certainly is not) under the fine direction of Gergely Madaras.
While David Lang has certainly subsequently eclipsed Illumination Rounds, one of the earliest pieces in his catalog, one can see why it often gets played. Violinist Katherine Bormann and pianist Brett Hodgdon reveled in its con fuoco opening, which juxtaposes repeated unison notes and secundal dissonances. The piece’s inspiration tends to lag a bit in the middle; but the performers here made a great case for its sudden return to the opening material, rallying to end with a flourish.
Beat Furrer‘s Voicelessness, the snow has no voice, for solo piano, is a daring exercise in starting from minimal means and building an elaborate structure. It starts in the middle of the keyboard with only three notes, gradually building its pitch complement and moving outward in terms of register. Ultimately, the piece winds down into widely spaced presentations of a semitone dyad. Pianist Artem Belogurov did a great job of handling the work’s gradual unfolding; his commitment drawing listeners in to its hushed fluency.
Cynthia Wong‘s String Quartet No. 1 was a TMC commission. Still in her twenties, Wong has studied at Juilliard and NEC, and is currently pursuing a doctorate at CUNY. Her quartet displays a polyglot sensibility. Many great composers of the Twentieth century – Debussy, Bartók, Ligeti, and Stravinsky, rub elbows in her fluid postmodern approach to the genre. But rather than appearing like a pastiche, the quick succession of styles and playing manners proved to be a showcase for the excellent New Fromm Players who comprised the quartet. Two of these were also holdovers from last year’s “Carterfest:” violinist Stephanie Nussbaum and cellist Kathryn Bates; they were joined by violinist Katherine Bormann and violist Pei-Ling Lin. Seeing the players dig into Wong’s quartet, nimbly executing everything from dissonant clusters to unison Neoromantic melodies with such fine preparation, one concluded that Tanglewood was wise to keep them in the rotation!
The concert closed with Oliver Knussen‘s Requiem – Songs for Sue. Dedicated to Knussen’s late wife (who passed away in 2003), the piece is a touching tribute. Bringing together settings of Emily Dickinson, Anthony Machado, W.H. Auden, and Rainer Maria Rilke, it’s easily one of the finest pieces Knussen has written. Soprano Danya Katok sang with purity of tone and an exquisitely balanced sense of the panoply of emotional nuances of grieving. Stefan Asbury led fifteen players in well-coordinated support, supplying weight where necessary while never overwhelming the singing. The performers deserve special kudos for continuing on gamely through a brief blackout in the midst of the performance. Happily, just as it seemed as if Asbury was about to stop things, the lights came back on!
The festival continues with a concert at 2:30 on Saturday, three performances on Sunday, and performances on Monday and Tuesday evening. For more information, check out Tanglewood’s website.