A wildly diverse festival of sound performances

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2011

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LENOX - Appropriately, the most eclectic piece of the five-day Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was at its diametric center. Errollyn Wallen’s two-piano, four-pianist “The Girl in My Alphabet’’ anchored Friday afternoon’s concert, morphing bits of “The Girl From Ipanema’’ into atonality, tonality, maximalism, minimalism, Romanticism - not to mention lounge jazz, salsa, David Foster soft-rock, and, finally, the original’s bossa nova, a dizzying spin of the dial.

This year’s festival, directed by the veteran modernist Charles Wuorinen, consummately performed by Tanglewood students and guests, wasn’t completely catholic. Wallen’s minimalist garnishes, for instance, were about as close as it got to that school. But as the weekend progressed (Jeremy Eichler’s review of the festival’s opening concerts appeared in late editions of Friday’s paper), the collection remained less ideological argument than variety show. The show even had a good theme song: Fred Ho’s brass-quartet “Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball!,’’ a deliciously stiff cocktail of jazzy instigation, opened most of the festival concerts.

Friday offered further jazz influences, though more subsumed than Wallen’s. Lee Hyla’s “The House of Flowers’’ worked heavy comping over a dead-end bass line into a Pablo Neruda setting of intriguing mood, grimly enervated energy. Wayne Peterson’s “Transformations,’’ a chamber symphony given an opulent reading (under the sharp direction of Tanglewood Fellow Ken-David Masur), cruised in colorful contemporary-music fashion, but with the crisp rhythmic profile and polished instrumental choirs of a big band under the hood.

From Milton Babbitt, the festival’s lone late composer, came “No Longer Very Clear,’’ a short setting of John Ashbery; soprano Adrienne Pardee was a clear, vibrant medium for Babbitt’s cut-glass ambience. Pianist Ursula Oppens included Babbitt on her compact Sunday recital: “It Takes Twelve to Tango,’’ dodecaphonic wit given a concise, sensual workout. Alongside, Oppens programmed two of Babbitt’s students, in pieces that nevertheless contributed to the week’s heterogeneity: Jason Eckardt’s “Cuts,’’ an ambient blizzard of crushed chords, and Tobias Picker’s “Four Etudes for Ursula,’’ dogged, athletic neo-Romanticism.

Oppens’s performance of Jo Kondo’s “High Window’’ - a gentle tread of repetitive harmonies - was one of three of the Japanese composer. “Beginning, Middle, and End,’’ for flute and string quartet, epitomized Kondo’s meditative style: a beautiful, long pearl-string of icy sonorities. “In Summer,’’ conducted by Masur on Sunday’s orchestra concert, was more dramatic, slow-rolling clouds that grew dark, even apocalyptic.

Performer-composers were scattered throughout the festival. Wallen took two of the eight hands in her piece. Louis Karchin conducted Sunday morning’s performance of his “Chamber Symphony,’’ all now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t tonality and shimmering charm. Sunday also brought David Fulmer’s Violin Concerto, with the composer as soloist, a grab-bag of extended techniques and complex, challenging textures that ended up less than the sum of its parts.

(For its part, the Boston Symphony pared its FCM obligations down to the six minutes of Pierre Jalbert’s “Music of air and fire,’’ an ethereal-then-driving curtain-raiser given Technicolor focus under conductor Sean Newhouse in Saturday’s Shed concert, which also included a thoroughly eccentric performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto - courtesy of soloist Sarah Chang - and a thoroughly climactic performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.)

A pair of unusually strong pieces explored less gentrified territory. On Sunday, Jonathan Dawe’s Horn Trio - superbly performed by hornist Nicholas Hartman, violinist Micah Ringham, and pianist Alexander Bernstein - combined refracting lines into a clear and urgent dramatic architecture. On Saturday, the Chicago-based composer George Flynn alternated movements with fellow pianist Nolan Pearson in Flynn’s “Pieces of Night,’’ a furiously virtuosic, brilliantly chiseled 50-minute monument to Vietnam-era insomnia, turbulence both historic and timely.

If Flynn’s epic provided the festival’s most potent sense of occasion, the closing orchestra concert was more like channel surfing between new-music textures. Joining Kondo’s storms was Felipe Lara’s “Onda,’’ a well-orchestrated but very typical seascape (conducted by Tanglewood Fellow Case Scaglione); David Felder’s “Inner Sky,’’ a bracing, ravishing soundscape for flutes (Marie Tachouet), electronics, and ensemble (led by Fellow Robert Treviño); and Christopher Rouse’s “Phaethon,’’ as loud and exciting as a symphonic ride gets (with Stefan Asbury on the podium and the pedal to the floor).

Andrew Norman’s “Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Splatter Splash,’’ a gloriously distracted, rapid-fire riot of a piece (conducted with brio by Scaglione), opened the concert, but could have also been the festival’s theme: newfangled provocation, old-fashioned lyricism, and sheer exuberant noise all thrown together. It was like a four-minute cartoon version of the week’s mixed bag: a festival of perusal, not proselytization.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC Charles Wuorinen, director Tanglewood Music Center

At: Ozawa Hall/Theatre, Tanglewood, Friday-Sunday