LENOX — Music’s ability to soothe the weary soul has been touted to market everything from classical radio stations to an endless supply of albums with titles such as “The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe” or “Classical Relaxation: Piano With Soothing Ocean Sounds.”
At a guess, the music of Helmut Lachenmann has never been considered for inclusion on one of these albums. Not even for a moment. This towering German high-modernist in fact preaches a creed of waking up the ears from their state of numbing slumber.
He’s hardly the first progressive-minded composer to do so. A century ago Charles Ives criticized music that let the ears “lie back in an easy chair.” In Lachenmann’s music, there is no easy, and there is no easy chair. There may not even be music.
Or so, one imagines, was the verdict in the minds of the few weary souls who walked out of Saturday’s Festival of Contemporary Music concert during Lachenmann’s piece. And it’s true that since the 1970s, Lachenmann has been building works primarily out of the sound material excluded from Western classical music: the squeaks, rasps, and tearing noises that bows can produce on strings, high-pitched floating sounds derived from playing behind the bridge, clouds of resonance released by a grand piano after its strings have been struck not by a hammer but by a blast from a tuba. There seems to be no end to Lachenmann’s extra-musical vocabulary of music. If more traditional composers are sometimes likened to sculptors in sound, Lachenmann collects what they’ve left out, assembling often rivetingly theatrical works from the discarded shavings of noise.
As director of this year’s FCM, the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard chose Lachenmann’s music as a central area of focus. One highlight of this weekend’s concerts in Ozawa Hall (the FCM opener was previously reviewed, and its concluding opera presentation will be covered separately) was the chance to encounter the distinctive musical world that Lachenmann conjured for the soprano voice and piano. The composer’s “Got Lost” premiered in 2008, and was his first work for this combination. It sets texts by Nietzsche and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa alongside an anonymous notice in an elevator posted by someone who had lost a laundry basket.
Then again, to say that Lachenmann “sets” these texts may be putting it a bit too literally. The singer transmutes the words into an absorbing sequence of precisely executed sighs, heavy breathing, trills, clucks, pitched facial slaps, and high notes belted out like a hitherto unknown subgenre of flamenco for extraterrestrials. The ridiculousness is part of the music, yet so is its ultra-serious delivery.
Saturday’s soprano, Elizabeth Keusch, was superb not only in her virtuosic performance of this outlandish vocalism but in her ability to convey the sense that more meaningful truths lay behind the hilarity — perhaps in part a meta-riff on language and the futility of expression, the distance between the signifier and the signified. (Imagine Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos attempting to compose lieder.)
Pianist Stephen Drury punctuated Keusch’s sighs with ghostly thuds and spiky volleys of notes, and added some vocal clucks of his own. A few people walked out of Ozawa Hall as mentioned, but most of the audience listened in rapt silence.
Saturday’s program also featured an intriguing work by Marco Stroppa titled “Ossia: Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone,” a study in the shifting properties of acoustic space as the musicians (Matthew Leslie Santana, violin; Louis Grevin, cello) migrated across 10 different positions on stage, playing at varying angles with the piano (Katherine Dowling). Elliott Carter’s music also had a presence, with Aimard deftly dispatching three solo piano works (“Retrouvailles,” “Tri-Tribute” and “90+”). Later that night, Christoph von Dohnanyi opened the BSO performance with Carter’s “Sound Fields,” a brief yet enthralling study in sonic density that stands a chance of being taken up more widely by orchestras seeking a modern-tinted concert-raiser. It does make for a gentle point of entry into Carter’s oeuvre as a whole, even if it sounds like nothing else the composer wrote.
Sunday’s FCM program seemed aimed at celebrating what has emerged as a kind of mid-to-late 20th-century musical canon. Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 received an exceptionally vivid and well-controlled reading (Matthew Vera and Thomas Hofmann, violins; Adrienne Hochman, viola; Francesca McNeeley, cello), the interconnected movements playing out like some haunted dream of Bartok. Two pianists (Dowling, Nicolas Namoradze) bravely took on a pair of Thomas Adès’s transcriptions of Nancarrow’s iconic Player Piano Studies, making these lines and highly complex rhythms, devised for machines, improbably sing and dance. And BSO cellist Mickey Katz performed both Stroppa’s “Ay, There’s the Rub,” with its ingenious play of harmonics, and a selection from Henri Dutilleux’s “Three Strophs sur le Nom de Paul Sacher,” offered in eloquent tribute to the composer, who died earlier this year.
Sunday’s concert concluded with Steve Reich’s landmark “Music for 18 Musicians.” It might be argued that a program with such a heavy concentration of modern music chestnuts does not really belong as part of FCM’s compressed survey of the new, especially with so few young composers represented this year on other programs. For its part, Sunday’s audience seemed to relish the chance to place recent discoveries in the context of older ones. After the phalanx of TMC fellows and guest artists had their way with Reich’s woody, gleaming symphony of pulsation, the ovation went on and on.