A mini-festival with a big tent

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / August 10, 2009

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LENOX - Tanglewood is large enough that it can hold a concurrent mini-festival mostly without disturbing the rhythms of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its summertime audiences. This weekend, tucked away in the Tanglewood Theater and Ozawa Hall, ears were trained on music by living composers - and lots of it. Since Friday afternoon, the Tanglewood Music Center has been hosting its annual new-music bash, the Festival of Contemporary Music.

Last summer’s festival was an anomaly in its laser-like focus on the music of a single composer, Elliott Carter, and the previous year it grappled with a generational theme by highlighting composers born in 1938. This year, under the direction of Augusta Read Thomas, it is turning back to its wide-angle approach with works by 31 composers from 13 countries. In a gesture overdue at FCM, Thomas has also sought out younger composers, with seven of the 31 described as “near or under’’ 30.

The big tent approach is welcome even if it makes teasing out unifying festival themes from the vast conglomeration of styles nearly impossible. Myths of musical progress, once crushing in their weight, have been blithely set aside by young composers today, and Thomas as curator shares their catholicity. As she wisely declares in her program introduction, “No one composer, style, school of thought and practice, or historical period can claim a monopoly of music’s truths.’’

Opening Friday afternoon’s program was Christopher Rouse’s explosive percussion work “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku’’ (1978), which the composer described as a “savage, propulsive war dance,’’ but in this case it also served as a ritual clearing of the air if not a joyful declaration of freedom. Its spiritual younger sibling on the program was David Lang’s “Illumination Rounds’’ for violin and piano, written four years later but sharing a sense of sprinting virtuosity and meticulously controlled chaos.

A gust from another planet seemed to carry in Matthias Pintscher’s “Lieder und Schneebilder’’ (“Lieder and Snow Pictures’’), a song cycle for soprano and piano on poems by E.E. Cummings. This is flitting, elusive, delicate, silvery music with a rich timbral palette, and soprano Sarah Joanne Davis and pianist Nolan Pearson gave it a persuasive reading. Also absorbing was Oliver Knussen’s poignant “Requiem - Songs for Sue,’’ as presented by conductor Stefan Asbury leading soprano Danya Katok and a highly capable TMC ensemble. Written in memory of his wife, who died in 2003, the piece contains settings of four moving but highly disparate poems, unified by Knussen’s well-honed compositional voice. Not a note is wasted.

Friday’s premiere was Cynthia Wong’s String Quartet No. 1, a piece with impressive energy and drive though it was not always easy to tell where Wong’s loving homage to the historic riches of the string quartet genre ended and her own voice began. A different kind of homage was present Saturday in Judd Greenstein’s cheekily titled solo piano work “Boulez Is Alive.’’ The title might have come from a post-serialist composer experiencing Stockholm syndrome but Greenstein, born in 1979, wasn’t even alive during Boulez’s notorious years as a flame-throwing polemicist. The work - an appealingly confident, densely expressive work that comes across as a kind of perpetual irruption - was instead Greenstein’s witty attempt to honor his debt to Boulez’s music, even if he has lately been wandering from its center of gravity.

Jacob Bancks’s highly caffeinated “Rapid Transit,’’ another premiere, came across as a suave romp for an unusual assembly of woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Yet the two major works that dominated Saturday’s program were George Benjamin’s remarkable “Upon Silence’’ (with mezzo-soprano Sarah Kelsey) and Unsuk Chin’s heady “Akrostichon-Wortspiel’’ (with soprano Lucy Shelton). There is no room here to do these pieces justice, but each work creates its own self-encapsulating sound world imagined with a precision and richness that was breathtaking.

Highlights of yesterday morning’s program included Yehudi Wyner’s eloquent Quartet for Oboe and String Trio, Tania Leon’s intricate “Singin’ Sepia,’’ and Paula Matthusen’s arresting “Of Minutiae and Memory,’’ which takes melancholy long-breathed soprano lines and supports, corrodes, and bejewels them with cello and prerecorded electronics. In the afternoon, Julian Kuerti deftly led the BSO in George Perle’s Sinfonietta II as the orchestra’s very modest contribution to FCM. Since Friday, the performances by TMC faculty, students, and guests have been at an impressively high level. This festival within a festival continues through tomorrow night.

At: Tanglewood Music Center, Friday through yesterday (continues today and tomorrow)

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