The Festival of Contemporary Music opens at Tanglewood

Old (and young) masters  
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 16, 2012

Korean soprano YoonGeong Lee sang the relentlessly high-lying vocal line of Luke Bedford's Or voit tout en aventure with both sweetness and power.

Tanglewood's annual Festival of Contemporary Music , directed this year by the British composer/conductor and three-time Tanglewood Fellow Oliver Knussen, got off to a terrific start, with two works by composers in their early 30s (Knussen's British protégé Luke Bedford and a protégé of American composer Steven Stucky, Sean Shepherd), two by senior figures (78-year-old British master Harrison Birtwistle and the American centenarian Elliott Carter), plus a rare American performance of Italian composer Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-1976).

The most recent piece was maybe the most inventive and surely the most moving, Carter's Double Trio, composed last year, just before his 103rd birthday. This is a kind of revisitation of his 1983 Rube-Goldberg comedy of mixed doubles, Triple Duo. Double Trio, only eight minutes, is both more readable and more mysterious — one trio consisting of a lyrical violin, soulful trombone (often muted), and shimmering percussion; the other of ruder trumpet, cello, and piano, which interrupts the first with uninvited out-blurts and self-centered solos—imaginative new configurations of Carter's famously interacting character groups. The piece ends (all too soon) with a big bass drum crash and a gentle Buster Keaton-ish sigh of resignation. I wanted to hear it again, instantly.

The evening began with Birtwistle's 2005 Cantus Iambicus ("Iambic Song"),another short piece, with a dazzlingly colorful sound world. It begins with ominous dark chords, but proceeds to high-pitched woodwinds, especially flute and piccolo, at faster speeds with emphatic iambic ostinatos and complicated cross rhythms, in a strangely circular structure. I felt as if I were on a breathlessly nightmarish, otherworldly carousel-everything going by so fast and the ride so exhilarating, until the sudden final slowdown and we had to get off. But where?

Castiglioni's Quickly (1994), a theme and 23 variations for 23 instruments, was the evening's wittiest piece — many of the variations taking hardly a minute, each new variation a kind of punch line to the previous one., with wonderful contrasts — in speed and timbre — and surprising echoes and musical rhymes. And jokes. A twittering violin followed by a twittering piccolo; a variation for delicate violins and wind chimes; a magical late variation for tinkling, twinkling harp, piano, harpsichord, celesta, and glockenspiel; and a short grand finale. Violinist Julia Noone and piccolo player Henrik Heide deserved their solo bows.

The strangest piece, but utterly compelling, was Bedford's 2006 Or voit tout en aventure ("Now everything is a matter of chance"), a six-movement setting of three songs in medieval French, critical of the failure of art to reflect or contribute to life and love, though nothing does this better than music. It seemed to evoke a slow, stately pavane-like dance, though the instrumentation was thoroughly modern. The impressive Korean soprano YoonGeong Lee sang her relentlessly high-lying vocal line with both sweetness and power. Her impassive expression seemed part of the point, especially in the almost syllabic urgency of the speeded-up fifth movement, though the vocalizing took a big toll on her French.

In another context, the youngest composer, Sean Shepherd's These Particular Circumstances (commissioned in 2009 by the New York Philharmonic), with its rich orchestration and oddball quotations (Holst's Planets, Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin), might have seemed more engaging. But everything else sounded so much more personal and less generic, as a concert-closer this was a letdown.

The Tanglewood Music Center Fellows and New Fromm Players were unsurprisingly superb, as were the conductors, Tanglewood fellows Alexandre Bloch (Birtwistle and Castiglioni) and Vlad Agachi (Carter), and Knussen’s assistant Jonathan Berman (Bedford and Shepherd). Few new-music concerts make new music sound so good.

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