Tanglewood: Introducing a generation

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Program book essays by festival director John Harbison (a man of '38) and scholar-in-residence Judith Tick contend there is no unifying characteristic that defines this assemblage. On the basis of Sunday night's concert, performed mostly by Tanglewood Music Center students, it is possible, however, to make a stab at a group portrait.

Even when in experimental mode, these six composers have a seriousness of intent that comes from a predigital age — an age when love didn't mean sex and pop wasn't king. The music lacks the grin of self-gratification that peers out of some recent works, especially those of the rock-based variety.

Sunday night's program, the second in the festival, was essentially vocal, even when there was no singer.

Two composers set poems by James Joyce in opposite ways. John Heiss' "Five Songs from James Joyce" (1986/96), sung with a shimmering voice by soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb to an accompaniment of clarinet and piano, were quirky and lyrical by turn. By contrast, David del Tredici's "I Hear an Army," sung by TMC faculty member Lucy Shelton with a string quartet accompaniment, depicted a nightmare in progress.

Composed in 1964, the del Tredici work comes from his atonal, pre-"Alice in Wonderland" period. His violently scrabbling strings often buried the tormented vocal part.

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Given a world premiere, Charles Fussell's "Venture" (2000) is a setting of four poems by Toni Mergentine Levi for baritone and piano. Luminously sung by Mischa Bouvier, the songs ventured compellingly into mystery even when being whimsical. The third song, a dream of sleepers being washed ashore, softly invoked Lorelei and Delilah at the end. This dream, unlike del Tredici's, carried a seductive whiff of the eternal.

Theodore Antoniou's "Lament for Manos" (2001), for solo clarinet, barely rose above a whisper in its elegy for a Greek friend. The rapt mood set by Brent Besner's performance was shattered near the end by the loudest ring tone ever devised by the cruel heart of man. There's the digital age for you!

The opening and closing works drew on recorded synthesizer sounds. David Borden's brief, tape-only "Earth Journeys: for Stanley Silverman" (from around 2003) slid by pleasingly, but Olly Wilson's "Sometimes" (1976), for voice and tape, proved to be an extended exercise in the disintegration of the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

Amplified to sometimes painful stereophonic levels, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton valiantly sang a stuttering, chopped-up text to an accompaniment of chopped-up voices and other whoop-bleep electronic sounds. The work is by an African-American. If a white composer had done it, he'd likely be accused of the equivalent of using the N-word.

All performers acquitted themselves well in music that can't be easy to sing or play. All composers except Antoniou, a former Tanglewood faculty member, were present for bows.


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