Ellen Highstein on Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (Video)

Musical America has an interview clip up on YouTube featuring Tanglewood Music Center Director Ellen Highstein discussing the important of contemporary music at the festival.

Highstein’s verbal articulation of this commitment was backed up by Tanglewood students and faculty over five days packed with committed and well-prepared performances at the 2012 Festival of Contemporary Music this past August. Let’s hope that when a new director arrives at the BSO, he or she continues with this commitment to repertoire from our time.

Instructions to composers

Gloria Cheng. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Friday August 10

LENOX – It was such a treat to have the opportunity to hear Gloria Cheng in recital at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. It included works by Birtwistle, Rands, Knussen, Benjamin, Harbison, and Salonen. I wrote the essay for her program and thus had taken the time to assiduously study all the scores in advance. But hearing them come to life in Cheng’s performance was still revelatory. Her accounts of the pieces were technically assured, meticulously detailed, and interpretively thoughtful. Those listeners who fear the post-tonal wing of contemporary repertoire, finding its dissonance forbidding, should make a point to hear her perform. She makes these works sing; your phobia will likely be cured before intermission.

There was a score that I hadn’t seen prior to the recital: her encore. To commemorate his 80th birthday Cheng commissioned a piece from John Williams. Mindful of the weighty program that listeners had already heard, the pianist made one request: that the composer write a short piece: one that could fit onto a single page.

After she explained this stipulation to the audience, Cheng unfurled the page of staff paper that Williams had delivered to her. His Conversations was indeed written on one page: one BIG page that could fill a grand piano’s entire music desk!

The audience certainly didn’t mind, and Cheng gave a stirring rendition of a work on which the ink was barely dry.

Those who know John Williams’s music from his film scores might assume that his concert music sounds similar. It doesn’t. Indeed, it fit right in alongside the formidable offerings already hear on the program. Who says one can only compose in one style?

And who said that a “single page” had to be 8″ 1/2 X 11″?

Thursday at Tanglewood

Picnicking - Tanglewood style!

August 9, 2012

LENOX, MA – Enjoyed the first evening of Tanglewood’s 2012 Festival of Contemporary Music. Got to hear Sean Shepherd’s “These Particular Circumstances,” for which I wrote the program notes, again, which was quite fine. Also Elliott Carter’s Double Trio, which has its moments, but is not one of my favorites from his late catalog. Still, if I can still write quarter notes when I’m over a hundred years old, I’ll count myself blessed; so I shouldn’t quibble too much.

Cantus Iambeus by Harrison Birtwistle, another one of his pieces dealing with imperfect synchronizations, was the standout of the evening, both in terms of the performance and the material. Nice orchestrations – some imaginative colors – in a set of songs for soprano and chamber forces from Luke Bedford.

Niccolo Castiglioni is known for writing almost exclusively above middle C. True to form, his “Quickly” is oriented toward altissimo registers and deconstructed sections, most for fragments of the orchestra. Given its propensity for piccolo solos and bristling bell work, it occasionally felt a bit like a dystopian Bolero designed to set hound dogs baying.

Friday’s itinerary includes a piano recital by Gloria Cheng, for which I wrote program notes, followed by an evening in Williamstown for dinner and a play. Lovely to be back in the Berkshires.

TMC Fellows perform Shepherd. Photo: Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood FCM Highlights Part Two

David Fulmer plays his Violin Concerto at FCM. Photo: Hilary Scott

David Fulmer, Violin Concerto: Written in 2010, Fulmer’s chamber concerto revels in complexity. Those who have heard his performances of the music of Brian Ferneyhough or that of his teacher Milton Babbitt, which sizzle with hyper-virtuosic playing, can readily understand such predilections. Fulmer’s performance as soloist on the Sunday morning FCM concert (on 8/7) was imbued with similar intensity.

Compositionally, it’s an abundantly promising work: but it isn’t perfect. Occasionally, one feels that a bit of crowd control might be brought to bear on the thickly scored busyness of the orchestration, to better clarify the angular counterpoint that propels the proceedings. Also, the inclusion of three keyboard instruments for one player – piano, harpsichord, and celesta – (without terribly extended parts for either of the latter two) seems an impractical choice that may limit the number of ensembles who will mount the piece. That said, Fulmer’s compositional language and performance demeanor exemplify an edginess and gutsiness notably in short supply among many of his contemporaries in the emerging composer realm.

Marie Tachouet plays the solo part in Felder's Inner Sky. Photo: Hilary Scott

David Felder, Inner Sky: Tanglewood is blessed with excellent student performers. And while there were a number of fellows who distinguished themselves on the festival, the standout for me was flutist Marie Tachouet. A member of the New Fromm Players, Tanglewood’s SEAL Team Six equivalent for contemporary music, Tachouet played on several FCM concerts. But she took her solo turn on its finale, an orchestra concert held in the evening on Sunday, August 7th.

The flutist was featured in David Felder’s Inner Sky. Composed in 1994 and substantially revised in ’99, this piece requires the soloist to perform on four flutes: piccolo, concert, alto, and bass flute. The trajectory of the piece is charted by the move from high to low flutes, which is registrally mimicked by a supporting quadraphonic electronics part that features both distressed flute samples and synthetic sounds. An “analog” surround effect is also created by an even distribution of strings and percussion across the stage.

Inner Sky is an immersive listening experience. It’s also a highly sophisticated colloquy between soloist, ensemble, and electronics; one that achieves a carefully choreographed balance of elements, both acoustic and musical: a balance that is all too rarely found in works for orchestra plus electronics. It certainly helped to have Tachouet’s sensitive performance and Robert Treviño’s fine direction of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

Later this year, Inner Sky sees release in both stereophonic and surround-sound formats. I’m looking forward to checking it out again (hopefully in both versions!).

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music: Highlights Part 1

Those who’ve read File Under ? for a while may know that, two years ago, my wife and I went on our honeymoon to Tanglewood. We celebrated our first anniversary at the 2010 FCM (composers take note: if your prospective partner doesn’t mind taking in a contemporary music marathon as part of your honeymoon, he/she is a keeper!) Due to work obligations, Kay and I weren’t able to attend the first three days of the 2011 Festival of Contemporary Music. Those who’d like to read excellent coverage of the beginning of the festival should head on over to New Music Box for Matthew Guerrieri’s review. But we did make it up to Lenox, MA for the final two days of the festival. And our short weekend was action packed; we heard five concerts and saw a play (a rather uneven performance of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and Company).

Kay at Shakespeare and Company.

Pierre Jalbert, Music of Air and Fire: The Boston Symphony often does a contemporary work on one of its concerts during the week of FCM as a nod to the festival. This year, it was Pierre Jalbert’s Music of Air and Fire (2007), which the orchestra, lead by BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse, performed at the Shed on August 6.

Jalbert was a Tanglewood fellow back in the 1990s. A professor at Rice University, he’s now in demand as a composer, both of works for large orchestra and for smaller forces, as this month’s NMB profile attests.

This six minute overture was premiered by the California Symphony; it is Jalbert’s first piece on a BSO program. Music of Fire and Air is a lively and well-paced curtain-raiser, with deft writing for percussion and vivid neo-tonal harmonies from strings and winds. Apart from a small excerpt available for streaming on Jalbert’s website, it is as yet unrecorded. Given the bang-up job the BSO did with the piece, dare we hope they’ll commit it to disc sometime soon?

Karchin leads TMC Fellows. Photo Hilary Scott

Louis Karchin, Chamber Symphony: Karchin’s Chamber Symphony (2009) was the closer of FCM’s 10 AM concert on August 7 (one of three given in Ozawa Hall on the festival’s final day). Cast in three movements, its  features limpid, flowing francophilic lines, daubed with tart counterpoint, as well brilliantly colorful verticals and bold Straussian horn calls. Despite leading an ensemble comprised primarily of student performers (albeit very talented student performers), Karchin’s conducting elicited a bright and assured rendition that rivaled its premiere by pros that I heard back in 2010. FCM should invite Karchin to return, both to hear his own works performed and to work with the students on contemporary repertoire.