While the Boston Symphony played weekend concerts of Brahms and Beethoven in the Koussevitzky Shed, some half a dozen programs, earlier or later in the day, roiled Seiji Ozawa Hall. They comprise Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, its annual display of a mission to expand the minds of adventurous listeners with unfamiliar works. Eloquently performed by fellows of its Music Center, the concerts are priced at zero, or close to it.
Whatever the meaning of “contemporary,” it is hard to define this year’s five-day event within it. Three composers whose works were heard are deceased, and a couple of pieces dated from the 1950s, more than a half-century ago. There was only one world premiere: “The Years of Light,” a contemplative piece commissioned from Christian Mason, that included sopranos, trumpets and 12 harmonicas.
Other works, using extended techniques little known in this country, received American premieres; there was special focus on Marco Stroppa, an Italian who works with electronics, and Helmut Lachenmann, whom the Boston Globe called “probably the most highly regarded German composer alive,” for his stretching of vocal and instrumental boundaries. Both are far better known in Europe than here.
This year’s FCM was directed by the brilliant, diffident French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a performer with rare ability to distill a composer’s intent and convey it to listeners, who come away satisfied. Check out his recordings — pick any one — and you’ll see.
Elliott Carter, who died just shy of his 104th birthday last fall, was a prominent Tanglewood figure, showing up until the end to stand and wave and take bows. At Saturday evening’s Prelude, Aimard himself played three brief Carter pieces, one dating way back to 1994, when he was only 86. It tickles the keyboard’s top ranges and ends with a high flurry. The others have short flowing outbursts in all ranges, and the most recent, written when he was 100, is a tribute to family members (long dead, one assumes).
Friday afternoon, Aimard joined two Fromm players (advanced alumni whose ensemble is named for Paul Fromm, Tanglewood’s original new music funder) for a Carter piano trio called “Epigrams,” which may be the only piece by a centenarian. In 12 short sections, it flashes bursts and bits, as if instruments talked to each other in a civilized but sometimes irate manner. It is dedicated to Aimard, who gave its posthumous premiere last spring.
Carter’s music once sounded austere and brainy, but with the tempering of time — and in contrast to the strange sounds of Stroppa and Lachenmann — its beauty is revealing itself. The FCM got a stunning sendoff Thursday afternoon, with a surprisingly moving performance of his 45-minute first String Quartet from 1951 (60-odd years ago) by the New Fromm Players. First violinist Sarah Silver introduced the work by lamenting that now that they were all in love with it, they would have no more chances to rehearse it.
And they played it as if it were the last time they would hear it: secure chords, pounced-on entrances, balanced tone, intense listening. It was not hot out, but they sweated. A recording, if it happened, would be a fine thing.
Thursday evening introduced Stroppa’s “Let Me Sing Into Your Ear,” which set up a reflex response of, “Don’t even try.” A 2010 concerto for amplified basset horn, it coordinated instrumental and solo-type puffs, blips and squeaks, amplified by four vertical speakers, and it ended in enigmatic quiet. With his spiky hair, guest basset hornist Michele Marelli looked like a guileless Peter Sellars.
The concluding piece was Lachenmann, “2 feelings,” which were fear and desire. Inspired by words of Leonardo da Vinci (Italian in German translation) about exploring caves, it called for chamber orchestra and speaker, who was Brian Church, a guest. Harp and guitar raise expectation of celestial sounds, but this piece, with the speaker chopping syllables, rumbled, scraped, and evoked mysterious, possibly dangerous depths. Stefan Asbury, conducting coordinator, had a big job putting together the swishing, sliding, whispering instruments and working with sounds that will be part of the future, and eventually, part of the past.
The mini-festival concludes at 8 p.m. Monday with a concert version of George Benjamin’s 2012 opera, “Written on Skin,” in its American premiere. The title refers to medieval times when precious books were written on skin.