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Tanglewood 2013: U.S. Premiere of George Benjamin's "Written on Skin"

Tanglewood 2013: Festival of Contemporary Music and Boston Symphony Orchestra

Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood

LENOX, MA — Last Saturday, I made the first of my two visits to Tanglewood over the weekend, arriving at Ozawa Hall just in time for the prelude concert prior to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's evening concert in the Shed. These concerts—free to Shed ticketholders—typically showcase BSO members performing chamber music by Brahms, Beethoven, or other long-deceased composers.

But, this particular concert was part of the ongoing Festival of Contemporary Music, which since 1964 has featured the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center performing music of our time alongside veteran performers and conductors. Tanglewood's focus on new music can be traced all the way back to Tanglewood's beginnings, when BSO Music Director (and TMC founder) Serge Koussevitzky—a tireless advocate of contemporary music—recruited composers such as Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith to join the TMC faculty.

This season, pianist and contemporary music specialist Pierre-Laurent Aimard curated the festival for the first time. Aimard, who has also been Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival since 2009, filled the docks with some of his favorite composers, several of whom don't often get performed on this side of the pond. In a series of video segments, Aimard says that he wanted to program composers whose music "is really in the stomach, that comes from the center of the human being"—a welcome relief from some of the more academic fare that has filled the Contemporary Music Festival in past years.

Pierre Laurent Aimard, Tanglewood, 8/10/13

Aimard opened Saturday's concert by performing three solo works by a former Tanglewood fixture: Elliott Carter, to whom the entire 2008 Festival was dedicated. It was strange and a bit sad to hear Carter's music in Ozawa Hall, given the last time I heard his music there, Carter himself ambled onstage to take a series of bows with Ollie Knussen. (Carter passed away last November at the age of 103.) Aimard, a longtime champion of Carter's music, performed three pieces written by Carter when he was in his 90s: 90+, Retrouvailles, and Tri-Tribute. Aimard gave muscular yet lyrical readings of these challenging works, with their exhilarating waterfalls of notes.  

Matthew Leslie Santana, Katherine Dowling, Marco Stroppa, Louise Grevin

I was completely unfamiliar with the work of Italian composer Marco Stroppa (b. 1959), but Aimard has known him for nearly 30 years, having met Stroppa while on tour with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain (in Boston, of all places). After that meeting, Boulez appointed Stroppa Director of Research at IRCAM in Paris, where he remained until 1990. Stroppa, who often integrates electronic elements into his music, has more recently explored acoustic instrumentation, as in 2005's Ossia: Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone, inspired by the poet Joseph Brodsky. Using a basic piano-trio setup, Stroppa achieved some fascinating spatial effects by having the cello and violin set up in different positions around the piano: behind it, in front but facing backwards, at opposite ends of the stage. The music itself was a haunting blend of serene and sinister, mixing glissandi in the strings with piano clusters and other unusual effects. 

stephen drury and Elizabeth Kuesch, lachenmann, got lost, tanglewood

Helmut Lachenmann, another composer known for his unusual explorations in acoustic sound, ended the program with GOT LOST (2008), a song cycle with texts from Nietzsche and Fernando Pessoa, as well as a laundry room lost-and-found note that gives the piece its title. Soprano Elizabeth Kuesch pushed the outer limits of vocal performance—clacking, hissing, slapping her puffed-up cheek and singing into the piano, her voice hanging in the air for what felt like forever. After it was over, she embraced pianist Stephen Drury with what looked like a mix of elation and relief. (More pics on the photo page.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood

After a break for dinner, I went over to the Shed for the evening concert featuring elder statesman Christoph von Dohnányi leading the BSO. They opened with Carter's Sound Field (2008), providing a welcome bridge from the earlier concert in Ozawa Hall. Commissioned by the TMC for the 2008 all-Carter Festival, Sound Field uses a string orchestra to explore contrasts in timbre and density while keeping the dynamics and tone color fixed. The melancholic music moved along at a glacial pace, creating an almost Feldman-like sense of space in the cavernous Shed.

Yefim Bronfman, Tanglewood

Returning to more traditional fare, Yefim Bronfman joined the BSO for Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. Fima gave his usual flawless performance, his fingers gliding effortlessly across the keyboard—though he was a bit too self-indulgent in the first movement's cadenza, at least judging by Dohnányi's reaction. Indeed, Dohnányi seemed to go for clarity at the expense of emotion, though he finally let the reins out at the end, letting Fima fly off his bench just a little. 

The concert ended with a riveting performance Brahms' Fourth Symphony, the best I've heard since Berlin's at Carnegie Hall in 2009. Dohnányi, who conducted from memory, seemed caught in a trance: at 83, the conductor may not jump up and down like some other young music directors, but his intensity more than matched theirs—particularly in the dramatic final movement, where Brahms used a minor-key chaconne by Bach to develop a series of increasingly hair-raising variations. Dohnányi, with his eyes closed and his head shaking, somehow found a way to blend restraint and control with emotion. The old dog's got some life in him, still. 

Christoph von Dohnanyi and the BSO

More pics on the photo page.