LENOX — The 2013 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood started with a redolent retrospective: Elliott Carter’s First String Quartet, written in 1951, an early exemplar of the style of contemporary music that the festival has annually surveyed. The performance by members of the New Fromm Players was bracing, with a superb sense of the structure’s large-scale respirations. The music’s brawny grandeur, though, grows out of sharply delineated disunities among the instruments. It was an aspirational prelude to a festival organized around disparate, precise idiosyncrasies.
This year’s festival, directed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, features only eight composers, an unusually limited roster. (In more ways than one: the composers are exclusively white males.) Carter is a focus, along with Marco Stroppa and Helmut Lachenmann, European-born modernists who nevertheless cultivate individual accents. All three featured in Thursday’s main concert, which was suffused with theatricality.
It opened with a premiere: Christian Mason’s “The Years of Light,” setting poetry of David Gascoyne for soprano (Jessica Aszodi), mezzo-
soprano (Katherine Maysek), and a chamber orchestra (conducted by Stilian Kirov) that includes the novelty of a 12-member harmonica choir. The overall sonic mood is static, shimmering textures regarded for a block of time. But the textures are often lovely, especially at the end: Over a breeze of strings, the harmonicas, gently chirping, processed out of the hall and onto the Tanglewood lawn, a marvelously charming effect.
Stroppa’s “Let Me Sing Into Your Ear” (an American premiere), a concerto for basset horn (Michele Marelli) and orchestra (led by Ciarán McAuley), electronically amplified and mediated the horn’s sound almost throughout, redirecting it through a bank of loudspeakers in the rough shape of the instrument, an oversized science-fiction simulacrum. Stroppa engineers fantastic sounds — a section in which ghostly basset horn runs darted among pale, heavily muted orchestral washes was especially absorbing — but, as with Mason’s, the piece was much more about the nature of those sounds than the drama of their order or arrangement.
Not so “Instances,” Carter’s second-to-last piece (he passed away last year, just before his 104th birthday). Co-commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center and the Seattle Symphony, who premiered it last February and conducted here by Kirov (also an assistant conductor in Seattle), it concentrated an entire landscape into eight efficiently vibrant minutes, a plethora of quick-cutting among the orchestral groups opening out into a meditative expanse.
That sweeping brevity was contrasted by Lachenmann’s “. . . zwei Gefühle . . . ,” a setting of texts by Leonardo da Vinci that played as an expressionist negative: the narrator (Brian Church) reversing the emphasis of consonants and vowels, the 23-player ensemble (conducted by Stefan Asbury) doing the same vis-à-vis pitch and noise, the music glimpsed behind a drawn-out cortège of breath, scrapes, squeaks and clicks. Mason and Stroppa’s close-ups and Carter’s montage gave way to Lachenmann’s scratched and decayed film, the frames and sprockets crumbling into dust.