LENOX — Besides presenting a compelling array of compositions, the opening concert of Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music demonstrated the passage of time and generations among composers.
The five-day series began Thursday night with a chamber orchestra program in commanding performances given by fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. There's new and then there's newer. Witold Lutslawki's "Chain 1" (1983) was followed by three works by composers to whom the Polish composer was, in the words of the program book, "a chief mentor and father-figure": the Finns Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg and the American Steven Stucky.
"Chain 1," conducted by TMC fellow Nuno Coelho, creates a kind of organized chaos; parts of the piece are unconducted, left to the players to play as they will. By contrast, the successors' works, however complex in organization, had recognizable expressive focus.
The effect was inherent in the design of the festival by Stucky, who curated it before his death in February. In the selections, he wrote, he wanted to show personal and artistic connections.
The program opened with a memorial to Stucky, his "Dialoghi" for solo cello, played with beauty of tone and intent by Norman Fischer, the head of the TMC chamber music program. In short, alternating sections, the piece actually puts the cello in dialog with itself — as, in the beginning, it did with the cellist friend for whom Stucky composed it.
In the orchestral works that followed, Salonen's "Five Images after Sappho" (1999) made good on the voluptuous promise of the poetic fragments it set. The five songs have a narrative. A girl discovers love, goes through its pitfalls (including a bout of stuttering), is married and receives comfort from an older woman.
The piece is colorfully and sensuously scored — a celesta depicts the evening stars — and it's only a shame texts weren't supplied for the audience. TMC soprano Bahareh Poureslami sang the English texts with a blossoming voice, expressive richness and clear diction, but Ozawa Hall's acoustics rendered her louder passages unclear. TMC conductor Christian Reif lent support.
Lindberg's "Marea" (1990), the centerpiece of an orchestral trilogy, was made of sterner stuff. "Marea" translates as "tides," and it was not hard to imagine the massive churning and forbidden grandeur of a Finn's northern sea in his gnarled, unsettling orchestration. Again, Reif conducted.
Stucky's own Chamber Concerto (2009), as the finale, recalled his Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra, performed a decade ago in the Tanglewood festival.
The 20-minute new work is built around complex key relationships, but in performance it was almost plush in its variety of orchestration and incident. Amid an evening of excellent ensemble work, it also gave soloists within the orchestra a chance to stand out. Stefan Asbury, head of the TMC conducting program, led with his customary authority.