This being Tanglewood, there was also a place for Americans, starting with Elliott Carter's extraordinary Double Trio (completed last year, when he was 102). Perhaps the single most extraordinary concert of the entire long weekend was a BSO Prelude Concert with the beloved 86-year-old former director of the Berkshire Music Center and FCM co-director Gunther Schuller leading a program of 15 short but profound, exhilarating, and sometimes hilarious pieces by Charles Ives, perhaps still, 50 years after his death, the most avant-garde of all American composers. In Calcium Light Night (performed twice) two marching bands approach and pass each other from opposite directions before they disappear. An Ives specialist, Schuller's own creative editing made several of these scores performable.
Earlier this summer, Schuller conducted the world premiere of his Dreamscape, a short but complex three-movement orchestral piece, commissioned for Tanglewood's 75th anniversary, that he says, like Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," came to him almost fully formed in a dream. For the final FCM concert, Knussen led a repeat performance. The three-minute "Scherzo umoristico e curioso" opens like the Big Bang, and ends with the sound of cap guns, choo-choo trains, a brassy "Charge!", a quotation from Tchaikovsky's Sugar-Plum Fairy, one of the players yelling "No!", and a loud raspberry. A murmuring wind-in-the-trees Nocturne (with real wind chimes) slips sneakily into blues. The title of the brief last movement "Birth — Evolution — Culmination" speaks for itself.
The festival ended with the 20-minute Happy Voices (1980/84), a deliciously overblown, exuberantly and appallingly tuneful orchestral "interlude" from David del Tredici (born 1937)'s Wonderland masterwork Child Alice. Two younger Americans—Marti Epstein (with a newly commissioned string quartet called Hidden Flowers whose slowly and quietly repeated phrases went on considerably, almost aggressively, longer than they needed to) and rising star Sean Shepherd—were less satisfyingly represented.
One concert was devoted entirely to 21st-century piano music, played by new-music specialist Gloria Cheng, in a program, she wrote, "chosen to honor Los Angeles and to illuminate its links to many of the composers . . . at Tanglewood this summer." These included Birtwistle, Benjamin, Knussen, Bernard Rands, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Dichotomie, with its multiple opposing glissandi), and John Harbison, who at one early point was actually listed co-director of the festival.
Most of these were character pieces. Harbison's 2009 Leonard Stein Anagrams is a coolly clever series of 13 miniature tributes to the pianist and Schoenberg expert in the title. The anagrams, to which Harbison says these pieces are responses, include "Liar, send tone," "Listen, a drone" (or "A silent drone" — fascinating that "listen" and "silent" consist of the same letters), "L.A. trend: noise," and finally "Done: entrails." As an encore, Cheng played the premiere of John Williams's Conversation, which combines the sounds of gospel and jazz, the backstory of which concerns the slave Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman) whose freedom the Great Barrington lawyer Theodore Sedgewick helped secure in 1781 (thus outlawing slavery in Massachusetts).
The problem with this concert was that Cheng's fluent and skillful pianism essentially lacked variety and character. On a later program, a phenomenal young pianist named Ryan MacEvoy McCullough made a stronger case for Benjamin's piano music than Cheng did. Cheng seemed to make little distinction among the different "characters" in Rands or Harbison. She allowed all the music to sound as if it were by the same composer. Fortunately, the festival itself didn't.