Tanglewood review: There is no escaping the magnetic field of Thomas Ade's 'Asyla'
LENOX — To conclude the Festival of Contemporary Music, Thomas Ades conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra Monday night in his "Asyla," a work at once mystifying and mesmerizing.
The English composer, who served as festival director and is the Boston Symphony Orchestra's "artistic partner," declines to say whether the plural title refers to homes for the insane or for refugees. On the evidence of the powerful performance of the 1997 work, you'd have to say the insane. On the other hand, given the current political situation, you could easily say refugees.
Or perhaps ambiguity is the point.
Ades also declines to call the four-movement, 20-minute work a symphony, though in form that's what it is. He says he wants to avoid the cultural baggage of the formal term.
Call it what you will. In its cataclysms and crazed repetitions, its shivering "Ecstasio" movement and eerie groans, its clattering cowbells and final fadeout, ominous sounds rule. But the orchestration is so brilliant, the progress so taut and cohesive, that there is no escaping the magnetic field. The performance by the student orchestra seemed all a composer could ask.
As usual in the annual festival-within-a-festival, student musicians furnished most of the manpower and woman power, with the aid of a scattering of guests, for wonderfully communicative performances.
And the legacy of Oliver Knussen, who was TMC's head of new music activities from 1985 to 1993 and returned as faculty many times afterward, lives on.
In a performance commemorating the English composer's death last year, student sopranos Elizabeth Polese and Margaret Tigue alternated in his "Whitman Settings" (1991). Awe at the miracle of air and sky runs through the settings of four of Whitman's most famous poems.
The vocal lines are imaginative, the orchestration opulent, with pictorial effects for a pair of eagles in flight and rain as a symbol of purification. But the sheer power of the orchestral sound tended to overshadow the otherwise attractive singing by young voices. TMC fellow Killian Farrell conducted.
Oh, the absurdity of it all. The program opened with Irish composer Gerald Barry's "Canada" (2017), which starts off with a parody, in English, German and French, of the prisoners' chorus from Beethoven's "Fidelio" ("What joy in the open air!"). Ostensibly meant as a tribute to Beethoven, the 10-minute piece proceeds to the word "Canada" sung, chanted and declaimed by a tenor (Charles Blandy) and called out, from shouts gradually descending to a whisper, by the orchestra, which makes a grand racket when not exercising its vocal cords. TMC fellow Nathan Aspinall was the conductor here.
Barry says the idea came to him in the Toronto airport. When he got through security, "'Canada' suddenly came into my head."
If absurdity marks the Barry piece, density marks Danish composer Poul Ruders' Symphony No. 5 (2013). The two outer movements, dominated by a large orchestra used to the max, give way to a "tranquil, dreaming" middle movement that provides a still, chill island of relief. Percussion plays a prominent role. Ades conducted.
When he elects "to call a major orchestral work a `symphony,'" Ruders says in a program note, "it is a signal from me, for whomever it may concern, that something special is going on here."
Fair enough. And the world moves on.
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