Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, which took place last week, usually has a theme, a title and a leader. But not only did this five-day array of diverse Americana have no title, it almost had no leader.
Composer Charles Wuorinen stepped in for James Levine, the visionary music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who resigned in June for health reasons, but fortunately, the festival sounded pretty healthy anyway.
The annual event is the heart of the Tanglewood Music Center program: Young professional players, singers and composers are coached by more than 50 BSO members as well as more than a dozen Tanglewood Music Center faculty members. Whatever disagreements exist about music choices, all agree that performances are dazzling.
In a recent talk to donors, the orchestra’s artistic administrator, Anthony Fogg, observed that he often hears complaints that a concert program is too long, but never that it’s too short. That thought may have informed this season’s planning, since the sprawling collections of past summers were neatly trimmed. Wednesday’s all-Wuorinen concert lasted barely an hour: six pieces in Thursday’s prestigious Fromm concert took two, and Friday afternoon’s chamber music was an hour and a half.
Levine, who still leads the Metropolitan Opera, was to have conducted the fun opening program of Wuorinen’s 2006 “Never Again the Same,” and also the premiere of his commissioned work dedicated to Levine — so not surprisingly, there were singers. A Wuorinen premiere led by Wuorinen, fun? How could that be?
The words were fun, and witty mini-staging by Ken Rus Schmoll was lifted by pitch-perfect voices and light acting. “It Happens Like This” is a cantata for four singers and 12 players. The text is seven whimsical poems of unreality, from “Return to the City of White Donkeys” by Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate, who is also the librettist for the short first piece for bass and tuba, about an impossibly beautiful sunset, called a “Pandemonium of tangerines.”
“It Happens” takes its title from the first poem, in which a man is approached on the street by a goat, who is apparently the savior of the world; a dancer, Freeda Electra Handelsman, in jeans and silly goat mask, doesn’t dance but stares straight ahead. Another poem, “The Promotion” is narrated by a disconsolate person who prefers his previous life as a dog. Here the dancer dances, in a dog mask.
Like Steve Reich, Wuorinen is captivated by rhythms of speech and song, and the singing — nothing like arias — flows out of storytelling speech. Wuorinen was a logical substitute for Levine, leading the orchestra on the opposite side of the stage from his singers. The Music Center fellows were typically poised and precise in their blend — actually, non-blend.
This short program, like most of the others, was preceded by “Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball!” Commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, this two-minute brass quartet by Fred Ho is suitably loud and assertive, with bluesy trombone slide and an abrupt ending that leaves listeners wide awake for the opening piece.
The next concert was underwritten by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard, and included the Paul Jacobs commission, named for the bold first Fromm-supported pianist and this year awarded to John Zorn, for his mystifying “à Rebours.” A guest ensemble, Signal, was conducted by the experienced Bradley Lubman, fresh from the Bang on a Can Festival at MASS MoCA.
John Chowning’s “Voices,” for soprano and tape, was theatrical, evocative and scary. The solitary compelling coloratura Amy Petrongelli wandered the stage and risers amid electronic devices, intoning a patchwork of Greek quotations and vocalese, performed to tapes of her own voice and other sounds. (A peek at the score revealed red and green computer indication squiggles looked like surreal Christmas decorations.)
Contemporary concerts take place in Seiji Ozawa Hall, but repertory at the weekend Boston Symphony concerts in the Koussevitzky Music Shed was business as usual: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and so on. This year’s nod to music of our time came first at Saturday’s concert, which was led with vigor and courtesy by BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse.
It was “Music of air and fire” for large orchestra, by Pierre Jalbert (pronounced JAL-burt,) who grew up in Newhouse’s Vermont hometown. Cleverly chosen, it was easy on the ears, beginning with a static section of celestial high percussion evoking air, and moving to a fiery section of rhythmic and textural excitement. (Nobody minded Sarah Chang’s playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto either.)
Contemporary programs continued in Ozawa Hall Sunday morning, beginning with “Creeping Meatball,” which was a bit unsettled this time. Fellows performed brainy small works (for an audience of enthusiastic students and perplexed older people) and an early-evening recital by the formidable pianist and faculty member Ursula Oppens preceded the TMC full-orchestra concert, led by conducting fellows (one of whom is Ken-David Masur, son of the legendary conductor Kurt Masur). The oldie, by Christopher Rouse, was from 1986.