LENOX — For its Friday-afternoon concert, Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music offered a glimpse into the workshop: the yield of the Piece-a-Day project, a three-pieces-in-72-hours pedagogical enterprise for each of this summer’s Tanglewood Music Center composition fellows (YiYiing Chen, Arne Gieshoff, David Hertzberg, Andrew Hsu, and Elizabeth Kelly). The results ran the gamut, from jam-packed miniatures to provocative sketches. But they epitomized a festival that seemed to highlight the process of composition as much as the end product.
Fifty years after the first such festival — unusually for Tanglewood, an anniversary honored in the breach — the FCM still changes pattern and purpose from summer to summer. Co-directed by John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi, this year’s festival focused on former Tanglewood fellows; alumni composers formed a majority on most concerts. But the music echoed the work of composing, accentuating one part of the toolkit, then another: sound, syntax, style.
Thursday’s opening concert started, like many compositional projects, with all-angles considerations of musical ideas. James Matheson’s 2008 quartet “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” inspired by Robert Burton’s 1621 book, was often frozen in ratiocination, combining keys, tempi, and stylistic markers into swirlingly static tableaux. Anna Weesner’s “Mother Tongues,” a 2006 setting of haiku by Sonia Sanchez for soprano (Claudia Rosenthal) and instrumental quintet, circled its short, often pop-pentatonic motives, judged the arrangement from a distance, went back in and shifted things around. Seung-Ah Oh’s percussion quartet “Canonic Phase,” from 2008, was more systematically exhaustive, rhythms and timbres combined and layered into larger, ritualistic patterns.
Harbison and Fred Lerdahl — the older generation — were represented by early works, youthful reckonings with avant-garde dialects. Lerdahl’s 1968 “Wake,” a long James Joyce setting conducted by Daniel Cohen, featured dazzling, virtuoso singing by soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, but was ultimately weighed down by undigested complexity. Harbison’s 1968 piano solo “Parody Fantasia” (played with effortless incisiveness by Katherine Dowling, one of the New Fromm Players, the festival’s bench of alumni new-music specialists) was clearer but still chockablock with complication, its Bach-derived theme accumulating notes and counterpoint. By contrast, Jacob Druckman’s 1979 “Bo” — an ancient Chinese prose poem by Mua Ha set for a close-harmony trio of singers (Rosenthal, Laura Strickling, and Loralee Singer) and an instrumental trio — was distilled music, extraneous ideas burned away, leaving gorgeous modernist exhalations. (Aram Demirjian conducted.)
Sound dominated Saturday’s concert, beginning with Keeril Makan’s extraordinary, arresting “2,” a 1998 violin-percussion duo of grim, glinting ecstasy, the rites superbly performed by Jordan Koransky and Joseph Kelly. The analytic engines of George Perle’s 1976 “Six Etudes” (played by Dowling) arranged complex harmonies into graceful densities. Hannah Lash’s 2012 “Friction, Pressure, Impact,” for cello (Nathan Watts) and piano (Livan), motored more monochromatically, maximizing opportunities for wiry steeliness.
David Dzubay’s expansive, imaginative String Quartet No. 1, “Astral” (2008), keenly realized by New Fromm Players Samantha Bennett, Sarah Silver, Jocelin Pan, and Jesse Christeson, gathered miscellaneous styles under a buzzing, rustling, shimmering sonic umbrella. It was chased by Eric Nathan’s 2012 “Toying,” for trumpet (George Goad), a whimsical, charming cracker-jack box of extended techniques. Dowling returned for Anthony Cheung’s 2010 “Roundabouts,” virtuosic clouds of piano resonance, the concert’s emphasis on sound summarized in ringing haze.
Sunday morning featured stylistic explorations. Martin Boykan’s aphoristic 2010 quintet “As Once on a Deserted Street. . .” slipped between modernist rigor and more old-fashioned, almost operatic hints of musical drama. Benjamin Scheuer’s “Voices,” a world premiere (conducted by Stephen Drury), was a stylistic kitchen sink: a double wind quintet, augmented by assorted toys — harmonicas, music boxes, kazoos, rattles — and electronics, all coursing through a mix of notions, noises, and allusions. Simultaneously harrowing and silly, “Voices” was a bushel of unbridled possibility dumped into an otherwise comparatively buttoned-down festival.
More disciplined play followed. Gandolfi’s meticulously bouncy 2005 “As Above,” for a 10-player ensemble (conducted by Stefan Asbury), used interlocking minimalist patterns as a transfer point between pop and jazz evocations. Another premiere, Bernard Rands’s “Folk Songs,” was genially, unapologetically nostalgic: three singers (Strickling, Reilly Nelson, and Sara Lemesh) and a chamber ensemble (conducted by Karina Canellakis) giving lush, tonal comfort to nine songs — spanning Europe and the Americas — a cozy, cinematic travelogue recapitulating Rands’s own cross-Atlantic career.
Sunday evening brought two large-scale vocal works at the intersection of old-fashioned narrative and moment-to-moment new-music immediacy. Kate Soper’s 2009 “Helen Enfettered,” to elusively atmospheric texts by Christian Bök, shaped its portrait of Helen of Troy by highlighting means of production, each movement an etude on a particular vocal technique: head voice, chest voice, snappy recitation, swooning sprechstimme, everything from a gauzy croon to a verismo shriek. (Demirjian conducted the eight-player ensemble; sopranos Marie Marquis and Angela Vallone were confident and compelling, Helen’s id and ego locked in vibrant duet.)
A score of Shakespeare’s sonnets were woven through Andrew Waggoner’s 2005 “This Powerful Rhyme,” for 10 players (conducted by Harbison) and two speakers (Kayo Iwama and Alan Smith, assiduously clear, but overemphasizing and under-parsing the poetry). The sonnets were arranged into a loose, course-of-true-love chronicle, but it was, again, the musical progression — one saturated, high-dynamic-range instrumental cushion after another — that carried the piece.
Monday’s finale — featuring the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, in unfailingly accomplished form — didn’t quite tie the festival’s threads together, but gave each another turn in the spotlight. First, a clutch of challenging musical ideas from a modernist classic, Roger Sessions’s Boston Symphony-commissioned 1981 Concerto for Orchestra, its slow-rolling atonal grandeur burnished smooth by Asbury’s efficient precision. Then style, via Steven Mackey’s rambunctiously elegiac 2008 violin concerto “Beautiful Passing” (composed as a memorial to his mother): power chords, country fiddling, and fervent lyricism jumbled in alternately pensive and percussive ways. Sarah Silver was the eloquent soloist; from the podium, Daniel Cohen drew extroverted phrasing and sound.
“At the Speed of Stillness,” by London-based Charlotte Bray, was all scintillant orchestration, a Benjamin Britten-esque seascape for the 21st century. (Bray’s inspiration was the Sizewell Power Station that looms nearby Britten’s beloved Aldeburgh.) Canellakis conducted with crisp aggression, as if to capture the water’s churn at the level of molecular vibration and collision.
Finally, there was the festival’s most explicit nod to musical toolmaking: “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” John Adams’s splashy 1996 ode to a famous modern-music sourcebook, Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns.” Asbury’s conducting put the music’s colossal, polychrome machinery front-and-center. It was an appropriate finish to a festival that often felt like a tour of the new-music factory floor.