Archimedes as muse at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music

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LENOX — In one of the more improbable text settings in composition history, Nathan Davis turned a 2,000-year-old treatise on mathematics by Archimedes into song, interspersing the Greek's calculations with bits from Wycliffe's 14th-century Bible, William Blake and a French counting song. The numbers added up to a meditation about the general expansion of things.

Maybe not so improbable after all, considering what followed on the program. Anthony Cheung set part of a Nabokov magazine article quoting Poe, Nabokov himself and Pushkin about the hazards of translation. Half spoken, half sung, the piece cites Nabokov in lamenting "errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge."

Davis' "The Sand Reckoner," for six solo voices and celesta (how many grains of sand, etc.), and Cheung's "All thorn, but cousin to your rose," for solo soprano and piano, more or less defined the range of thought and effect in Thursday night's opening program in Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music. Both pieces were Tanglewood Music Center commissions receiving world premieres; both were among six works on the wide-ranging program. All six offerings received arresting performances by TMC fellows along with guest artists.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this panorama of recent composition was that the four living composers were all friends of pianist Jacob Greenberg, who curated the program. All four were TMC graduates as well. Greenberg in turn was one of three fairly recent TMC graduates - all appeared to be in the age range of 40 - who are co-curating the festival as a whole.

The program opened with "Chimers" (hint of "chimera" intentional), an almost childlike 2011 piece for violin, clarinet, toy glockenspiel, toy piano and tuning forks by Phyllis Chen: a charming mix of acoustic and electronic chiming sounds. From there, the going got serious indeed - almost intellectual, you might say. In contrast to rock- and pop-inspired composers of the current generation, this group has read widely and probed deeply into the art.

Two works by composers from an earlier generation provided benchmarks for the recent pieces.

Gy rgy Kurtag's H lderlin Songs, expressionist and enigmatic, sung by alternating soloists, came with an intensity that suggested songs by Berg. Sofia Gubaidulina's meditation on a Bach choral prelude, for instrumental ensemble, transformed its submission to God's throne into a trembling, whispering harbinger of death.

For a knockout conclusion, George Lewis' "Anthem" (2011-12), for soprano and mixed ensemble, turned a Catholic nun's 1947 book about Shakespeare's use of language into a jazz-club-inspired, electro-acoustic monologue about wanna wanna wanna you, sweetheart. Kate Soper, a star of the New York new-music scene, was all-over-the-place versatile as she hummed, hollered and sang the black-lingo solo role.                    

An onstage discussion with the four living composers was conducted during intermission by Robert Kirzinger, editor of the festival's helpful program book. Tanglewood, as is its custom, unhelpfully kept the Ozawa Hall house lights low, making it all but impossible for listeners to follow the essential texts in the vocal pieces.

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