SIX CONCERTS IN THIS YEAR’S Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood were devoted to “American Music of the Past Fifteen Years.” The first of those six was an entertaining and occasionally maddening mix of orchestral and chamber works, with a set of hauntingly gorgeous song settings by William Bolcom at the center.
The players, a mix of students and faculty at the summer-long Music Center program, certainly had the chops to get through the work, and conductor Laura Jackson kept the difficult rhythms intact. The only problem was instrumental balance – the string ensemble in front of the group was completely obscured by the rest.
Leon Kirchner’s 1988 “Triptych” gave cellist Mickey Katz a workout, beginning with a solo first movement that, with its chaconne-like series of variations, made increasingly difficult demands on the player. Crunchy harmonies and a strident melodic sense occasionally suggested Prokofiev, but this was a dense, complicated piece that hinted at contrasting moods before whisking them away in a flurry of double stops or pizzicato chords.
Violinist Caroline Pliszka joined Katz for the last two movements. She walked onstage playing a shared harmonic, then the two launched a fantasy-like dialogue in which violin dominated with shifting moods in the manner of the first movement. The finish, marked Presto, sneaks in suddenly and builds to a powerful dance while losing none of its crunch before the piece subsides to a finish in an introspective vein.
Which effectively set the scene for the centerpiece – and the soul – of the concert, four song settings by William Bolcom. His friend Jane Kenyon wrote the poems “Twilight: After Haying” and “The Clearing” (collected in Briefly It Enters), both setting pastoral scenes that hint at a terrific sense of loss. The verse of “Twilight,” rhythmically characterized by iambs and anapests, is contrasted by a setting in three with a pattern of two notes, rest, repeat. It gives the feel of a work song. Similarly, “The Clearing” had the easy charm of the walk in the woods it describes, up to the surprising plaint that ends it. Tenor John McMunn sang with a buttery tone and crisp, superb diction, nicely complemented by pianist Alison D’Amato. And they tossed off the setting of Marianne Moore’s “Oh to Be a Dragon” with the right wit to match Bolcom’s humorous setting.
What a contrast to Auden’s “September 1, 1939”! Tenor Eric Shaw sang excellently, but he was somewhat upstaged by the words themselves. Auden by way of Bolcom made a political statement as appropriate today as it was 63 years ago, with added poignancy given its lament of “the unmentionable odour or death [that] offends the September night.” Bolcom let the words do much of that work, but that makes it sound too simple. The skill of the setting, the skill of the singer, the pianist’s skillful nonchalance – all of these conjoined to impart the sound and sense of the song as transparently as possible. Auden’s polemics invites musical archness, but, aside for a patch of Hanns Eisler-like stridency, the music was effective in its contrasting gentleness.
The words reminded us that “there is no such thing as the State/And no one lives alone ... We must love one another or die” even as the poem lamented the tyranny of Authority in a world beset by evil forces. Which is a good reminder to give Zappa his due: the only non-living composer represented on the program, he was defiant enough to wade into the teeming trenches of Congress to fight for artists’ rights – and every performance of “G-Spot Tornado” (or any other Zappa work) can carry an extra fillip of enjoyment on that score.
Two movements from Evan Chambers’s “Cold Water, Dry Stone,” inspired by the composer’s 1995 trip to Albania, summoned an Eastern feel (in the way Hovhaness, say, gets Eastern). The chamber ensemble featured marimba, clarinet, bassoon, alto sax, violin, and piano, and the opening allowed a single melody to flow from one instrument to another with breathtaking transparency, a characteristic that imbued the piece as a whole.
“The Cold Water of Himara” takes a Moldau-like trip without getting clichéd; the second movement, “The Road to Gjirokaster,” whirls into a jagged dance without getting any too happy. Conductor Daniel Alfred Wachs led the nimble-fingered forces with accomplishment.
Michael Morgan conducted a chamber orchestra for John Adams’s 1992 Chamber Symphony, inspired, the composer writes, by the Schoenberg piece of the same name by way of vintage cartoons. It’s a piece of great gravitas, hinting at fun it never commits to deliver. That may be a case of allowing the program notes to set up an unrealistic expectation, but even the loose-limbed second movement, titled “Aria with Walking Bass,” seemed to run out of ideas before the end.
The three-movement work otherwise has an effective arc of dramatic tension. The opening, “Mongrel Airs,” introduces itself with unison bass trombone, string bass, and bassoon before thickening the mix with the rest of the group. Over a relentless rhythmic figure (reminiscent of the middle section of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse”) it relies on brass chorales and short solo comments to vary the effect. “Aria” does what the name suggests, but that walking bass stands on the sidelines and examines such jazz techniques without actually plunging in. Then “Roadrunner” wraps up the piece with a busy flourish.
Percussionist Daniel Bauch had a workout and carried it off masterfully; violinist Shin-Young Kwon was stunning in the pyrotechnics of the last movement, and bassist David Campbell also excelled with a challenging part.
One of the great joys of a concert like this is not knowing what to expect from each piece; in every case, the performances were superb and, though I may have been angry, confused, or annoyed from time to time, those are valid (and even enjoyable) reactions. Never once was I disappointed.
Tanglewood Music Center: Festival of Contemporary Music, July 21, 2002
– andante.com, July 2002