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Classical Notes

Her advice? Take a ‘huge breadth’

Augusta Read Thomas, the Chicago-based composer, directs the 2009 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Augusta Read Thomas, the Chicago-based composer, directs the 2009 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood.
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2009

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Last year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was a model of single-minded focus. The weeklong sequence of concerts and discussions was devoted solely to the music of Elliott Carter, a series lovingly programmed by James Levine, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director and longtime Carter champion. (Levine ultimately had to withdraw because of kidney surgery.)

By contrast, this summer’s gathering - which opens next Friday - is a wide-angle snapshot of the new-music universe. In the four chamber music concerts that make up the festival’s core, composers of different ages, styles, and localities are brought together in a lively conglomeration of noise. And in contrast to the august centenarian Carter, many of the composers in this year’s festival are young, and in some cases largely unknown. (Carter will still have a presence, though: His “Poems of Louis Zukofsky’’ will be premiered on Aug. 9.)

Credit for concocting this heady brew goes to Augusta Read Thomas, the festival’s director this year, and an apt choice to curate the gathering. The Chicago-based Thomas was a composing fellow at Tanglewood three times in the 1980s and has been on its composition faculty five summers during this past decade.

“What that provides is a knowledge of the feel of the place,’’ she says by phone from her home in the Berkshires. “The feel of those magical woods and trees and all that, but also the feel of the faculty and the students and the vibe, which is always electric and positive and vital. And I had all of that in the back of my mind when I sat down to create the programs.’’

In addition, Thomas has highly catholic tastes when it comes to the music of others. This year’s offerings represent 38 composers, 13 countries, and as many stylistic categories as one can tick off. “I genuinely love a huge breadth of music,’’ says Thomas, whose own works synthesize a host of influences into a sophisticated and deeply personal style that is itself hard to classify. “No one has a monopoly on the truth of music. I feel strongly about that: We have to allow and live with and thrive on all these different possibilities that music can be.’’

The first concert serves as a microcosm of the FCM’s happy disunity. It opens with what Thomas calls the “Varesean romp’’ of Christopher Rouse’s “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku’’ for percussion, and ends with Oliver Knussen’s poignant “Requiem - Songs for Sue,’’ a memorial for the composer’s wife. In between come the driving post-minimalism of David Lang’s “Illumination Rounds’’ and the whispery expressionism of Matthias Pintscher’s “Lieder und Schneebilder.’’ Works by Pierre Boulez, Beat Furrer, and a premiere by TMC composing fellow Cynthia Lee Wong round out the program.

“If someone sits through these seven pieces, it’s an incredible menu,’’ Thomas says. And while labels can sometimes be handy in describing or differentiating pieces and their creators, “whether a piece is of this style or that style, or one’s a little more radical than another, is less interesting to me than the quality of the idea and the honesty with which the person made it. In every piece, you can feel the individualized creative energy. And you can just grab it in an immediate way.’’

Assembling the programs took up a full six months of sustained investigation. “For me, in order to find the piece I’m madly in love with, I have to hear a lot that I’m not madly in love with,’’ she explains. “And the only way to do it is to sit and listen, and pieces take time. You can’t run through an art gallery and glance.’’ And there was also the logistical side of calculating the availability of players, optimal sequencing for the stage layout - what Thomas calls “the crossword-puzzle side’’ of the planning.

Despite the work, Thomas found curating the festival “really invigorating and positive, because you realize how many incredibly talented people there are writing this incredibly beautiful music. It’s a happy thought that the state of the field is very good.’’

That optimism will likely come in handy at a time when the new-music world is struggling to stave off the sense of beleaguerment that pervades many cultural organizations. Thomas remains undaunted.

“In general, I feel like I’m kind of a ‘yes-person,’ which I think our field needs,’’ she says. “Sometimes this part of our profession seems to be climbing so many hills that there are a lot of noes - no money, no recordings, no players. I guess I hope to encounter a lot of yesses. To keep the positive spirit and to give it out in the way that I’ve tried, and hopefully find some yesses echoing in these woods.’’

Aug. 7-11; 888-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org

Midsummer Mozart
Boston Midsummer Opera begins its fourth summer of accessible operatic offerings next week. This year’s production is a modern-day setting of Mozart’s final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, “Cosi fan tutte,’’ in an adaptation and English translation by BMO artistic director Drew Minter. Susan Davenny Wyner conducts.

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