A blurring of past and present at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music


LENOX — A countertenor sings a mystical verse by Garcia Lorca ("Casida, the wounded by water"). Around and amid the 1930s poetry, ethereal women's voices weave a halo of sound in a visionary verse from the 11th-century Solomon Ibn Gabriol (" earth borrows its light, as pledge it takes to the stars").

Are you in the present? The past? In some timeless, disorienting expanse between?

George Benjamin takes you out of time, or perhaps deeper into it, in his "Dream of the Song," which received its American premiere by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra on Monday night. As in his opera "Written on Skin," given its American premiere by the TMC forces three years ago, the English composer creates a numinous world of six songs in which today is yesterday, and reality is a dream

"Dream of the Song," a Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commission, was paired with Olivier Messiaen's 1949 "Turangalila-Symphonie" to make up the final program of the TMC's Festival of Contemporary Music. If a more exhausting, exhilarating program is to come along this summer, it's hard to imagine what it could be.

Credit goes not just to the composers, but to the brilliant array of student soloists and orchestral musicians. And to Stefan Asbury, the indefatigable head of the TMC conducting program, who prepared and conducted the whole glorious affair.

Messiaen taught Benjamin, but you'd never have known it from these two pieces.

Messiaen is a maximalist here. "Turangalila" is for a monster orchestra (10 double bassists, six percussionists) and takes 80 riotous moments to play itself out. Benjamin is a minimalist. "Dream of the Song" is in 20 tightly controlled minutes for a small orchestra, small women's chorus (the guest Lorelei Ensemble) and the countertenor soloist — TMC fellow Daniel Moody, who brought vivid poise and character to the difficult part.

As in "Written on Skin," but without the opera's tale of lust and betrayal, violence seethes beneath the surface of "Dream of the Song." It bursts to the surface in the opening song, but then mostly dissolves into evocations of the earth's mysterious woes and gifts.

Hebrew verses by Ibn Gabriol and his contemporary Samuel HaNagid, in English translation, are superimposed on, or set against, others in the original Spanish by Lorca; all three poets are Andalusian. The orchestration is intricate and elusive.

But then, the whole work is elusive, deliberately transporting the listener out of time and place. Ideally, it would have been repeated later on the same program for deeper contemplation. The performance deserved no less.

Messiaen's "Turangalila" — the title is Sanskrit, conjoining ideas of love and life — is one long, sustained explosion of color, energy, pulsing, churning, soaring and howling, all enhanced by the otherworldly electronic whoops of the ondes Martenot. It's crazy music, an 80-minute orgy, a scream of ecstasy.

It's also a piano concerto with a demonic, almost demented solo part, played with incredible stamina and command by TMC student George Xiaoyuan Fu. Guest artist Genevieve Grenier played the ondes Martenot.

The sound generated in Ozawa Hall was so overwhelming that you half-expected the police to appear and close down the joint. The rapturous love music could have been written by overwrought French Rachmaninoff.

An unusual night to say the least. The last Tanglewood performance of "Turangalila," if memory is to be trusted, was about 40 years ago by the BSO under Seiji Ozawa. Anything can happen, and did.


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