The Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) at Tanglewood this year had the theme “The Generation of ‘38,” meaning most of the music performed was by (American) composers born in 1938 or thereabouts. Almost all of them were present at the festival. John Harbison, the festival director, is one of them. (The FCM link above is accompanied by an audio portion describing a photographic retrospective of the festival in the Visitors Center.)
Performers, with the exception of a few professional soloists, were the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC),
“ Established in 1940 by former Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Serge Koussevitzky, the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) provides a unique, in-depth musical experience for emerging professional musicians of exceptional ability.”
Judith Tick, Consulting Scholar, conducted lively pre-concert talks, often with the composers themselves.
Music ranged from chamber music to orchestral works, concertos, film music, etc. I missed only the first concert.
(As usual, please handle all Wikipedia links below with care)
Highlights for me were the vocal evening, especially two works with text by James Joyce: David del Tredici’s I Hear an Army for Soprano and String Quartet (1964), sung by faculty member Lucy Shelton and John Heiss’ Five Songs from James Joyce for soprano, clarinet and piano (1986/96). Mezzo-soprano and fellow Jamie Barton gave an impressive performance of Olly Wilson’s 1976 Sometimes, for voice and tape, a haunting piece based on the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” I also liked William Bolcom’s powerful Whitman Triyptych for mezzo-soprana and orchestra (1995) with three poems by Walt Whitman, performed another night. A photo from the performance.
Of the concertos, the most interesting was the percussion concerto Strike Zones by Joan Tower (2001), a percussionist’s dream! It's described here, and indeed was a virtuoso performance by Nicholas Tolle, moving around seven zones of every imaginable percussion instrument.
Of John Harbison, we heard two recent pieces. Abu Ghraib for cello and piano (2006), performed by the Fischer Duo, was not quite what many in the audience expected. Mr. Harbison explained that “My piece is not a protest or moral lesson. This would require a little bravery, Instead it seeks music in a moment where words can fail.” I have to say that it is a beautiful piece which one could associate with anything. Later on in the week, the BSO and its principal bass Edwin Barker in its Friday concert played Harbison’s 2006 Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra, a BSO 125th Anniversary Commission, co-commissioned by the International Society of Bassists and a consortium of orchestra. There are few concertos for bass around, is this one is notable addition to the repertoire. Mr. Barker played the Koussevitzky Double Bass.
Then we had “Film Music Night” with composers Stanley Silverman, Paul Chihara, and Philip Glass. ArtsBeat describes it thusly: Tanglewood Festival: So You Want to Score Films. Why? , but I think that was a bit too severe, I thought it at least interesting, especially as the three composers discussed the individual film clips. Mr. Silverman stopped composing film music in 1976 and said that the he would not resume it, the scene had changed too much. Mr. Chihara was and is the most prolific film music composer of the three (here is a link to an interview), and Mr. Glass showed clips from two documentaries, The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War - Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, both directed by Earl Morris. Most of the movies were unknown to me.
And finally, the annual Fromm Concert. First played the Julius Hemphill Sextet. Not being a jazz fan – so kill me – I was not impressed, but the rest of the audience certainly was. Aftre the intermission, we had the Musica Elettronica Viva, with Alvin Curran as spokesman, the weirdest thing seen an heard yet. Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski have been performing together for years. At the moment of performance, none the performers know what the other will be playing, and the strange thing is that it does not sound too bad to the ear. Among laughter, a lady in the audience asked Mr. Curran, “Do tou know what you are doing?” and he said sometimes, when they listen to the recording, they ask themselves, “Did we really do that?"
As to the festival, ArtsBeat asks about Geezers Rule. And indeed there were only two commissioned pieces for the festival by young composers, Aperture by Jason Eckart, which I missed, and White Lies for Lormax for solo piano by Mason Bates, which did not impress me too much.
However, here is another Times article:
This year at the Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music, the composer John Harbison, who directed the festival, assembled a program in the competing aesthetic ideas of a single generation.