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Music Review

Contemporary pieces from wondrous to ‘Wild’

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2010

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LENOX — This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood treated “contemporary’’ as a style more than a temporal measurement; the average age of programmed works was just about 28. Last year it was around 10.

Age is relative, of course. Witness that it was the 101-year-old Elliott Carter who wrote the festival’s newest piece, a chamber-orchestra setting of Marianne Moore poetry titled, appropriately, “What Are Years.’’ Superbly sung by Sarah Joanne Davis and conducted by Oliver Knussen, the cycle’s wry conciseness and unsentimental poignancy capped a festival featuring newness then and now jostling for position.

The age factor was partially thematic. Knussen, John Harbison, and Gunther Schuller, the festival codirectors, celebrated the Tanglewood Music Center’s 70th anniversary, showcasing teachers (and a couple of students) from as far back as inaugural faculty member Paul Hindemith. But much of the programming also exemplified the heyday of an American new-music industry that sprouted in the 1960s and ’70s — and peaked, perhaps, somewhere around 28 years ago — parallel to the classical-music establishment, allied with academia, and nurtured by foundation support.

One of the most venerable festival supporters remains the Fromm Foundation, and no fewer than six of this year’s works were originally Fromm commissions. Most of those leavened atonal vocabularies with anything-goes aesthetics. Luciano Berio’s 1960 “Circles,’’ for example, further deconstructs E.E. Cummings’s deconstructed language into pure sound. (Mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright was phenomenal, the technical and theatrical demands met with a shimmering tone.) Or Lukas Foss’s 1963 “Echoi,’’ pushing 50 and still the festival’s most gleefully startling thing: a dexterously engineered free-for-all, part virtuosic showcase, part performance art. The fearlessly accomplished performers — clarinetist Ryan Yuré, percussionist Michael Roberts, cellist Kathryn Bates Williams, and pianist Nolan Pearson — threw in rock ’n’ roll wardrobe flourishes of sunglasses, Doc Martens, and No Wave red-tie-on-black, reiterating Foss’s unbridled proto-punk invention.

Another running subplot was the heterogeneity of the 12-tone method, from the finely drawn lyricism of Irving Fine’s 1959 “Fantasia for String Trio’’ to the stop-motion jazziness of Charles Wuorinen’s 2002 two-piano “Fifty Fifty.’’ Some works seemed to have been waiting for performers to catch up: Pianist Alexander Bernstein’s realization of the high-proof expressionism of Roger Sessions’s 1975 “Five Pieces’’ exploded with pent-up flair and passion.

Newer works assembled more tonal materials — the jigsaw rhythms of Steven Mackey’s double string quartet “Gaggle and Flock,’’ or Michael Gandolfi’s shiny, process-driven “Design School.’’ Vernaculars made cameo appearances: Theodore Antoniou’s Greek-tinged contrabass “Concertino’’; Bright Sheng’s eloquent, Asian-inspired “Three Fantasies’’ for violin and piano; Yehudi Wyner’s deadpan “Passage I,’’ both an homage and a gentle thumb in the eye of musical Americana.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Festival contributions carried similar echoes: Schuller’s “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee,’’ conducted by Robert Spano at Sunday afternoon’s concert, offered simulacra of both jazz and Arabian music; Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel,’’ sumptuously played by cellist Alisa Weilerstein on conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s all-South-American “Caminos del Inka’’ Friday evening program, transformed Brazilian shades into something compulsively lovely and luminous.

2007 TMC Fellow Andrew McPherson’s “Secrets of Antikythera,’’ fervidly dispatched by pianist Ryan McCullough, coursed with volubility, while 2008 Fellow Helen Grime’s “10 Miniatures,’’ deftly rendered by Pearson, were mercurially aphoristic. Both showed the post-millennial influence of Olivier Messiaen’s bell-and-bird-call style. Augusta Read Thomas’s “Traces,’’ played by pianist Makiko Hirata with fizzy confidence, specified its influences, mixing particular jazz and classical composers. (Among a host of exemplary TMC performers, pianists stood out this year; also notable was William McNally’s sharp soloing in George Perle’s “Concertino.’’)

The historical focus engendered some historical distortion. This festival was, compositionally, very much a boys’ club; only Thomas and Grime interrupted the all-male parade. The demographic also skewed toward an older establishment; composers born in the 1970s — a cohort squeezed as the new-music industry waned — were conspicuously absent.

The festival is increasingly burdened with keeping alive its own repertoire, as even the cream of the contemporary-music tradition continues to be shut out of the classical-music mainstream. When music like Jacob Druckman’s dazzlingly colorful 1979 “Aureole’’ (vividly conducted by Keitaro Harada) or the wondrous, bewitching aleatoric haze of Bruno Maderna’s 1972 “Il giardino religioso’’ (led by Knussen) is still banished to the margins, it speaks ill for the ecology of the musical landscape. The week was dotted with fantastic creatures that survive only in the festival’s captivity.

On Sunday night, a pair of one-act concert operas, conducted by Stefan Asbury with panache and command, addressed the conundrum, each in its own allegorical way. In Harbison’s intensely grim “Full Moon in March,’’ based on Yeats, art’s creation is a bloody business: a swineherd (Shea Owens) attempts to woo a queen (Sarah Nisbett) with song, and is beheaded along the way. But in Knussen’s lush, spellbinding version of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,’’ Max (soprano Danya Katok, precisely mischievous) wins over the Things by howling the louder. This festival was youngest at heart when at its wildest.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

2010 FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Tanglewood Music Center

At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Thursday through Monday