Festival of Contemporary Music offers a feast of newish works at Tanglewood

July 23, 2014 at 1:43 pm

By Eric C. Simpson

Kate Soper’s “Helen Enfettered” was performed Monday night at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo: Hilary Scott

A major project of this year’s Tanglewood Festival has been the Festival of Contemporary Music, a series of concerts at Ozawa Hall performed by the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows. To be clear, this was not a festival of new works, per se, though there were a few of those as well, including the annual “Piece-a-day” concert on Friday, which was made up of works composed by TMC composition fellows in twenty-four hours or less.

The later concerts in the series presented pieces mostly by established composers. Saturday afternoon’s program featured works for chamber ensembles of various configurations, as well as George Perle’s Six Etudes for solo piano, intelligently performed by Katherine Dowling. The Etudes are wonderfully beguiling, and Dowling played with a keen sensitivity to the music’s contours, at times calling to mind the gentle waves of a Chopin nocturne.

Saturday’s most effective work was David Dzubay’s five-movement String Quartet No. 1, Astral, from 2008. None of the four voices in this quartet ever feels like an afterthought, each contributing equally as the music traverses a dazzling array of sonic qualities. A running figure paces the first movement, “Voyage,” as a bright, lyrical melody ranges on top. The second (“Starry Night”) and fourth (“Wintu Dream Song”) movements evoke infinite space with their crushed harmonies, while “S. E. T. I.” bridges the two with a playful, active confusion.

The energy pent up at the beginning of the finale, “Supernova,” revisits the first movement’s jogging pattern before finally exploding in a brilliant flash. The quartet (violinists Samantha Bennett and Sarah Silver, violist Jocelin Pan, and cellist Jesse Christenson) brought passion to the work, and showed acute awareness of each other, matching their dynamics perfectly.

Sunday evening featured two dramatic works that took drastically different approaches in their use of text. The first of the two was Kate Soper’s Helen Enfettered (2009) for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and chamber ensemble. In setting excerpts from Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Soper divides the title role between the two female voices, allowing us to hear Helen’s lamentations as though through two facets of the same character.

A beautiful setting of a mystifying text, Helen Enfettered moves organically through the material, and finds different ways to reflect the text’s message and sentiment through eight sections that form a weaving, gripping cycle. The first seven maintain a consistently dark palette, but expressive variety is achieved by other means. The first section, “Whenever Helen feels these stresses,” opens with a flurry of discomfort, small spindly noises from the ensemble creating a cold and prickly texture.

The music continues to explore cold, bleak territory, including a jaunt through the deepest recesses of Hell that features terrifying crashes of a bass drum and demonic, piercing clarinet fanfares. When the final section, “Helen enters her Greek Temple,” arrives, there is a complete shift. The disturbed, crawling feel that has dogged the listener evaporates, replaced by bright, open space. It is a profoundly moving resolution to a winding emotional journey.

The entire ensemble played tightly, led with precision by Aram Damirjian. The clear show-stoppers, though, were the two vocalists, Marie Marquis and Angela Vallone. Both are sopranos, but Vallone sounded perfectly comfortable in the mezzo role. Even though they sang in different registers, the similarity of their timbres enhanced the sensation that one or the other of the two parts was a sort of “shadow side.” Soper’s vocal writing is unsettlingly clean, and the singers displayed an evenness of tone that is of paramount importance to the vocal line. The two sopranos met the challenge, singing with a full, direct sound and supple phrasing.

Contrast Soper’s work with Andrew Waggoner’s This Powerful Rhyme (2005), a prime example of what not to do when putting poetry to music. To begin with, this piece doesn’t strictly set a text—rather, the music serves as a background as two speakers (in this case, members of TMC’s vocal faculty) read the text, twenty of Shakespeare’s sonnets in their entirety.

The music was little more than accompaniment, relying on common, snickering gestures. Yet even if there had been more imaginative musical writing, the incorporation of the text was an utter mess. The readings were dramatic to the point of goofiness, their interpretations laboriously drawn out. The composer insisted that the readers be miked, stifling the organic quality of the voice, and lending the whole affair the unfortunate caricatured feel of a dive bar poetry jam. When the music adds nothing to the text and the text nothing to the music, it’s generally better to let the two go their separate ways.

The final concert of the festival Monday night was with the full TMC orchestra. Roger Sessions’ Concerto for Orchestra opened the program on a stiff note, but the evening  took a turn upward thereafter.

Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness was heard in its American premiere. Inspired by the beach at Aldeburgh, Britten’s seaside home, and the power plant that overlooks it, Bray’s work has a good deal of sonic variety, though its purpose is hard to divine. Pulsing, toe-tapping rhythms permeated the work, but it remained impenetrable.

There were, however, two standout works on the program. The first was Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing, a violin concerto from 2008. Drawing on Mackey’s experience of losing his mother, the piece comprises two movements separated by a cadenza. The violin opens the concerto alone, its line placid, seeking serenity, only to be interrupted by clattering percussion and blaring brass.

This struggle plays out over and over, growing calmer as it cycles through until the orchestra and the soloist finally meet. The violinist, Sarah Silver, grappled admirably with the part, producing a clear, soulful tone that carried immense emotional weight.

The cadenza opens quietly, alternating flickering harmonics with fully stopped notes. The violin seems faint, but still wild in spirit, moving straight into metronomic, screaming triple-stops as the orchestra rejoins the fray. There are moments of fleshy, almost Romantic writing for full strings, but for the most part the conclusion is hair-raising. Daniel Cohen, a TMC conducting fellow, was sure-handed on the podium, bringing powerful playing out of the orchestra while still supporting his soloist.

The closer on Monday’s program was one that almost feels familiar now, John Adams’s 1996 Slonimsky’s Earbox. From its brilliant, sizzling opening to its thrilling end, there is a vibrant shimmer and constant hum of energy in the piece. Led by TMC faculty member Stefan Asbury, the orchestra played with tremendous brio and brought to bear a rich, fresh sound. The work itself uses repeating patterns to create atmospheric textures, but also has clear direction and specificity—a reminder of just how silly it is to try to give a composer like Adams a shoehorn label like “minimalist.”

Eric C. Simpson is the Assistant Editor of The New Criterion.

Posted in Performances

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