LENOX -- Moved by a newspaper photo of frightened fugitives huddling in the bottom of a boat, Jacob Druckman in 1979 composed "Bo" (Chinese for "waves") in honor of the Vietnamese caught up in the "boat people" crisis of that time.
In the lamentations, a chorus of three women softly chants, moans and keens amid shimmering, Asian-tinged sonorities from a chamber ensemble. The text is a fourth-century Chinese prose poem, "The Sea." The effect is haunting, mesmerizing.
"Bo" was the most arresting -- that is, most deeply felt -- of six pieces performed Thursday night in the opening concert of Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. The others ranged from a witty percussion quartet by Seung-Ah Oh to an inscrutable setting of passages from Joyce’s "Ulysses" by Fred Lerdahl. The strongly committed, sometimes eloquent performances were by current and recent fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center.
In anticipation of the school’s 75th anniversary next year, one focus of the TMC-based festival this year is on composers who honed their trade as TMC fellows. The program book lists 15 to be performed, ranging from the well-known John Adams ‘74 to the relative newcomer Benjamin Scheuer ‘12.
In a foreword, festival co-director John Harbison ‘59 -- long a prominent figure both at Tanglewood and in the larger music world -- writes:
"We encourage the composers to widen their skills, to prepare for a world that will ask unexpected things from them.
Means, of course, are one thing -- effects, another.
The opening program was primarily for chamber ensembles, with theater and orchestral works yet to come. It was divided equally between works from the 2000s by a younger group of composers and works from the ‘60s and ‘70s by older grads, including Druckman ‘49-50.
Seung-Ah Oh ‘06 contributed the percussion piece, whose title, "Canonic Phase," provides the essential clue. Phasing in and out, the imitating figures recall Steve Reich’s percussion ventures but retain a winning good humor -- also a welcome willingness to rein in percussion’s louder instincts.
The newer pieces also included James Matheson’s depressive "The Anatomy of Melancholy" (based on the Robert Burton classic) and Anna Weesner’s "Mother Tongues," a setting of erotic haiku for soprano soloist and ensemble. From the old school also came Harbison’s "Parody Fantasia" for solo piano. The evening’s finale, it produced the most electrifying performance, a tour de force by Katherine Dowling.
Other impressive soloists in difficult assignments included sopranos Claudia Rosenthal and Lucy Fitz Gibbon. All the composers except Druckman, who died in 1996, were on hand to share in ovations from the good-sized audience.