Oliver Knussen on Lukas Foss

Echoi performed by New Fromm Players at FCM. Photo: Hilary Scott

At the preconcert lecture at Tanglewood on Monday night, Oliver Knussen had this to say about Lukas Foss’ Echoi, which was featured on the 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music. “When you look at a work like Echoi, which is filled with all of this crazy improv stuff that’s very much of its time – the early ’60s – whatever strange systems Lukas used to create the music, he always chose the ‘right notes.’ There was an innate musicality there that transcended the chaos to create very affecting music. Many other composers’ works from that era haven’t worn well and sound dated, but Echoi remains a piece that really works.”

“When Lukas passed away, I took out all my old LPs of his music and put them onto my computer. I’ve really been enjoying go through and listening to them again. I’ve been sharing them with friends, and many of them, including a number of young composers, are just blown away by the music.”

Sounds like Foss deserves a revival. And, in my opinion, Knussen’s the man to do it!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear his Foss mixtape – fancy a trade, Olly?

Where’s Gunther?

A number of attendees at the Tanglewood 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music were puzzled by the absence of one of its three co-curators: Gunther Schuller. In a pre-concert lecture on Monday featuring the festival’s other two curators, Oliver Knussen and John Harbison, his name was only briefly mentioned, despite the fact that he helped to program the festival.

So, why was Schuller absent from the FCM? Apparently, he accepted a conflicting conducting engagement at the Edinburgh Festival. On 8/14, he conducted an All-American program with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra: Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the jazz band version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Steven Osborne as soloist), and Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony.

While Schuller’s been in Edinburgh, his fellow co-curators have been very busy: nearly omnipresent. To the credit of both Knussen and Harbison, they’ve been at every festival performance, either appearing as conductors or listening from the audience. As Knussen put it during the pre-concert talk, “I don’t generally find myself as an audience member much these days, in fact I usually avoid it, but I’ve been enjoying hearing all of the music on these programs.” They’ve both also been involved in preparing the performances, listening in on rehearsals and coaching the various chamber ensembles.

The pieces singled out for praise by both Knussen and Harbison weren’t necessarily by composers with whom they’re generally associated. Much of the talk focused on works by Bruno Maderna, Lukas Foss, and on the one composer who they most regretted omitting from the FCM programs: Luigi Dallapiccola. (The latter composer appeared elsewhere this summer on a TMC program.)

While the curators’ self-effacement was gentlemanly, one wished that they’d have discussed their chamber operas, Harbison’s Full Moon in March and Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, which were performed on Sunday night’s concert. Perhaps the BSO should take a cue from the New York Philharmonic’s recent employment of YouTube as an educational tool. Before everyone departs, they should get some interview footage up on the web about this extraordinary week of contemporary music!

One Sunday at Tanglewood

After all this music, maybe a hike?

Three Concerts in One Day! Twelve pieces, including two one-act operas: 6 1/2 hours of music.

Here’s what we heard:

10 AM

Fantasia for String Trio …Irving Fine

Ten Miniatures for Solo Piano … Helen Grime

Circles … Luciano Berio

Piece pour piano et quatuor de cordes … Oliver Messiaen

Since Brass, nor Stone … Alexander Goehr

Design School … Michael Gandolfi


2:30 PM (BSO in the Shed)

An American in Paris … George Gershwin

Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee … Gunther Schuller

Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs … Leonard Bernstein

Piano Concerto in F … George Gershwin


8 PM Two one-act operas

Full Moon in March … John Harbison

Where the Wild Things Are … Oliver Knussen

Christian’s Top Three

Knussen – a momentous experience to hear this piece live!

Fine – Beautiful performance. Makes me want to know his work better.

Schuller – His best piece: hands down.

Kay’s Top Three

Knussen – I loved how he evoked the different locations & moods — and the barbershop quartet near the end!

Gershwin – An American in Paris – It transports me to Paris every time I hear it. It was stunning to hear it played so beautifully by the BSO (in terrific seats!)

Messiaen – Unexpected sound qualities from the instruments – hearing a piano quintet played in such an exciting, colorful, and fresh way.

We both also enjoyed Helen Grime’s music a great deal. She’s a special talent – keep an eye out for her!

Tomorrow – Elliott Carter premiere!

Superlative Sessions

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music

Friday, August 13 at 2:30 PM

Lenox, Massachusetts

Just about the best thing I’ve heard thus far at the 2010 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is a performance of Roger Sessions’ relatively late (1975) Five Pieces for Piano by Tanglewood Fellow Alexander Bernstein.

While his From My Diary, an earlier non-dodecaphonic group for solo piano, is programmed more frequently, Five Pieces is some of Sessions’ best piano writing. Dedicated to the then recently deceased composer Luigi Dallapiccola, they are dazzling works that combine harmonic rigor and abundant virtuosity with an unerring sense of pacing. While Sessions is frequently described as having a somewhat vinegary palette, these pieces contain some considerably lush verticals. They don’t linger in this energetically modernist work, but these sumptuous glancing blows help to make the piece one of my favorites in Sessions’ catalogue.

The impression that Bernstein made is far more than a glancing blow. He played these pieces with such assurance and musicality that the audience could scarcely contain themselves. What was programmed as the ‘progenitor’s piece’ on a concert of later modernists, an appetizer to a hearty main course of Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Foss, was anything but an amuse-bouche. It received a number of curtain calls and a hearty share of hoots and hollers (happily, the students here are enthusiastic supporters of one another!). If this is what Bernstein can do now with Sessions, I can’t wait to hear his Babbitt, Carter, and Boulez in a few years. Scratch that: now please!