Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music: Time marches on


LENOX -- Roger Sessions' Concerto for Orchestra stands like a weather-beaten New England rock wall amid a forest of young-growth compositions springing up all around.

Tanglewood revived the Massachusetts composer's 1981 work Monday night to begin the final program in the Festival of Contemporary Music. Once considered the work of an advanced thinker, the concerto now sounds old guard with its dense chromaticism and counterpoint and its echoes of Schönberg and Berg.

Unlovable though it is, the piece -- a centennial commission by the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- retains a certain integrity that two of the later, now more advanced works on the program had yet to prove.

The concert was given by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra as the culmination of the five-day sampler of works mostly from the last two decades. Introducing the program, TMC conducting coordinator Stefan Asbury described each of the four works as homage of a sort -- to the BSO, for example, or to a composer's mother or a nuke plant. As the Sessions work showed, time marches on, sometimes requiring homage, in a succession of styles.

As always in these festival programs, the playing by the student orchestra and the leadership by the conductors -- two of them students -- were exemplary in unity and vividness.


Before closing with the minimalist-to-the-max mayhem of John Adams' 1996 "Slonimsky's Earbox," the concert offered two programmatic pieces by TMC graduates. In their use of the full resources of an orchestra, neither could be tagged with the label "minimalist." The question was: Would either piece succeed without the specific program behind it?

Steven Mackey's 2008 "Beautiful Passing," for violin and orchestra, memorializes the death of his mother. She is represented in a serene solo violin line wafting above a brutal, interrupting orchestra representing death. Death pauses for a lengthy, soaring cadenza before completing its merciless task.

In spirit if not in means, the work recalls the Berg Violin Concerto and its memorialization of actress Manon Gropius. Sarah Silver delivered the solo part with quiet intensity.


Charlotte Bray's 2012 "At the Speed of Stillness," an American premiere, contemplates a massive nuclear power plant on the eastern coast of England. Bray is clearly impressed. Racing figures in the orchestra suggest what she describes as the "energetic charge" emanating from the complex. Perhaps unintentionally, an explosive climax suggests another possibility: Chernobyl.

Though a takeoff on Stravinsky, the box to the ear in "Slonimsky's Earbox" is homage to conductor and new-music advocate Nicolas Slonimsky, who died in 1995. With its obsessive rhythmic layers and patterns, the quicksilver piece seems to keep running off the track, but not really. As the final word, it was a huge jest in serious fun.

Asbury conducted the Sessions and Adams performances. Conducting fellows Daniel Cohen and Karina Canellakis took the Mackey and Bray pieces, respectively. Homage to all.


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