Picnic on the Tanglewood grounds. Photo credit: Kay MitchellOn Saturday at 2:30, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music continued with its second concert. The FCM performances contain generous helpings of music. While established composers such as George Benjamin, David Rakowski, and John Corigliano were included Saturday, curator Augusta Read Thomas programmed a great deal of music by the “emerging” generation and by composers underrepresented on US concerts. Some highlights:

Jacob Bancks’ Rapid Transit, for mixed chamber ensemble, received its premiere. A TMC commission, the piece started out slowly, alternating nervous percussion flurries with chorale-like pan-modal verticals. Eventually, the winds picked up the percussion’s rhythmic ideas, and the ensemble was off to the races. Bancks created a clever amalgam of ‘transit sounds,’ using brass for car and train horns and percussion for the various noises that routinely besiege commuters. The faster sections also employed a more chromatic pitch field to further ratchet up the tension. While some details of pacing between the ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ sections might be rethought, Bancks’ compositional language is attractive and the overall impression was quite promising.

Judd Greenstein inverted the famous Boulez essay title, “Schoenberg is Dead,” to create his own work title: Boulez is Alive. In this piece for solo piano, Greenstein detached and deconstructed the modernist elements of his postmodern aesthetic. As the composer acknowledges in his program note, he wrestled with modernism during his training, ultimately rebelling against it. The surface of Boulez is Alive contains evidence of this struggle, with Notations-like angularity pitted against an insistent, gradually emerging tonal center and ostinato figuration. If the piece served to exorcise some demons for Greenstein, it also proved to be a fine performance vehicle for the excellent pianist Makiko Hirata.

Another performance highlight: Pianist Gregory DeTurk played the hell out of three piano etudes by David Rakowski. He reveled in the quick arpeggiations and repeated notes of E-Machines, gave a jaunty rendering of Taking the Fifths, and created a wonderful, lyrical ambience on Les Arbres embué. For anyone who thinks that Rakowski’s etudes are all about mixing jocularity with virtuosity, they need only listen to the latter piece to hear an example of considerable depth and poignancy.

This is the second time I’ve heard Akrostichen-Wortspiel by Unsuk Chin, and it is a piece well worth revisiting often. Korean-born and based in Berlin since the late 1980s, Chin draws upon a host of reference points, ranging from her own background to studies with Ligeti, work in electronic music, and an interest in the writings of author Lewis Carroll.

Akrostichen-Wortspiel, for soprano and ensemble is assembled from texts by Carroll and The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende. Its seven pieces don’t construct a linear narrative per se. Indeed, the texts are often deconstructed and employed for their phonemic qualities rather than as specific expressers of meaning. That said, Chin’s vocal music still draws one in to a well-described and eminently expressive sound world. The piece employs frequent microtonal inflections, but also contains sweeping Neoromantic melodies and achingly high sustained passages. Soprano Lucy Shelton performed the devilishly difficult solo part with poise and flair, capturing its rapid emotional shifts and myriad melismatic details.

Hungarian composer Zoltán Jeney’s Cantos para Todos, written in 1983, was another work for soprano and ensemble. It commemorated the tenth anniversary of the coup that overthrew the Allende government in Chile.

The text includes two poems by Chilean poet Gonzalo Millán and an anonymous text. Over constant ostinato pulsations, the voice presents the often-harrowing texts with little overt histrionics; instead, they are often delivered with a sense of resignation, almost as reportage. The effect is harrowing, moving, and often chilling. It certainly helped that the soloist never oversold. Soprano Rachel Hauge not only has a beautiful voice, but she did an exquisite job striking the perfect balance with these subtly nuanced works.

Jeney is a composer I’d like to know much better. My new wife, Kay, weighed in that this was the most beautiful thing thus far on the festival. I think our wine and cheese picnic on the grounds came in a close second!

3 thoughts on “Tanglewood FCM – Day Two”
  1. David,

    Pleasure meeting you as well. Look forward to hearing some of your music when you have time to send!

    Ed – got to say, the Berkshires have a nice selection of both wines and microbrew! We’ve enjoyed the restaurants, but it’s also fun making a picnic to bring to Tanglewood. 🙂


  2. Mmmmmm, cheese and wine* (and/or nice beer.)

    *erm, just pretend I wrote something erudite and insightful about the music at Tanglewood instead of the crass, pavlovian Homer Simpson comment you see above.

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