LENOX — Were Shakespeare alive today, he might amend his oft-cited maxim “brevity is the soul of wit” to include something about concerts of contemporary art music. Like most things about this summer at Tanglewood, the Tanglewood Music Center’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) was distinctly abbreviated this year, including three concerts across two days: two of chamber music and one featuring the TMC Orchestra, all in the Koussevitzky Music Shed due to the season-long closure of Ozawa Hall. Pending continued mitigation of the pandemic, the festival ought to be restored to full glory next summer.
Now, what if this year’s 90-minute concerts became a permanent feature of the festival? When opera director Peter Sellars led the Ojai Festival in 2016, he deemed around 80 minutes the perfect length for a concert to be substantial but still digestible. I agreed with him then, and I still do now, especially regarding new music. Compared with my past FCM experiences as an audience member, Tanglewood fellow, and writer, it was easier to stay in the moment — and easier to process and retain the experience afterward, since I wasn’t weighed down with the musical version of a food coma.
Some might bristle at FCM concerts being trimmed, and argue that three-hour programs help separate the dilettantes from the devotees. No doubt this faction significantly overlaps with those who believe that if listeners without music degrees enjoy a piece, then the piece is bad. Therefore, we may ignore them.
This summer’s FCM (directed by Thomas Adès) was much thinner for the absence of the Fromm Players, the annual squad of veteran TMC fellows who focus primarily on new music. Most years, Fromms have hit their stride as an ensemble by the time FCM rolls around, and the established group dynamic bolsters confidence and musicality. With no Fromms this year, fellows were assembled according to the demands of each piece.
In the chamber concerts, ”smaller is better” proved a useful rule of thumb. On Saturday afternoon, the clarinet duet of fellows Jakob Lenhardt and Sangwon Lee made a punchy avian argument of Per Norgård’s “Hut Ab!” TMC fellow pianists Mathilde Handelsman and Barry Tan delivered a mesmerizing rendition of Judith Weir’s “Ardnamurchan Point.” And Handelsman paired up with TMC faculty pianist Stephen Drury for five of György Kurtág’s “Jatekok” (Games), which ran the gamut from prankish to profound.
Drury, who also organizes the annual SICPP new music performance intensive at New England Conservatory, sprinkles playful and theatrical elements into many of his projects, and he was given an ideal vehicle in Andrew Norman’s anarchic improvisation playground “Frank’s House,” for two pianos and two percussionists. Drury and Yukiko Takagi (Drury’s creative and life partner, and a new music champion as well) put themselves at the mercy of two percussion fellows, who put the pianists through their paces with joyously unpredictable cues.
Sunday morning and Monday afternoon included several pieces for larger chamber ensembles, given solid if unseasoned performances by the TMC fellows. As soloist in Kaija Saariaho’s “Graal théâtre” on Sunday, violinist Momo Wong proved one to watch, her instrument playing the role of a determined pilgrim weathering the orchestra’s billowing clouds and craggy landscapes. Sunday also included two premieres. In its first stateside performance, Andrew Haig’s skittish “Replacing” gave musical form to the uneasiness and overwhelm of the pandemic’s early days, when every shadow in the grocery store was startling. Xinyang Wang’s “Between the Resonating Abysses” for string orchestra was given its world premiere; composed in remembrance of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, independent string parts reeled in almost constant motion, making for a deep, persistent feeling of instability. It would have been twice as effective were it half as long.
The TMC orchestra closed out the festival Monday evening with a well-balanced program of late-20th-century styles. In the hands of conducting fellow Kevin Fitzgerald, the gauzy theme and variations of Norgård’s “Dream Play” coalesced into a seamless tone poem. Steve Reich’s “Reich/Richter,” the newest piece on the program (circa 2019), would be undistinguished in the composer’s catalog without its visual counterpart, a hypnotic film by Corinna Belz and Gerhard Richter based off Richter’s “Patterns” paintings. When energy flagged at about the performance’s halfway point, it was easy to lose one’s self among the mysterious gardens, insects, and cathedrals that coalesced out of colors onscreen.
None could outshine special guest Anthony Marwood, the featured soloist in Ligeti’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Ending as it does with an extended and totally exposed cadenza — Marwood used one composed by Adès — this concerto demands Olympian-caliber endurance from its soloist, and Marwood surely would have run away with the gold. Under Adès’s baton, the orchestra created a backdrop of dramatic and organic sound; the Intermezzo saw the strings’ whispering tree-sounds morph into bright rocket flares, and the long Passacaglia slowly smoldered into a blazing inferno. Against all this, Marwood’s violin dug deep through double stops and soared high with angelic resonance — think many-eyed seraphim, not Precious Moments figurine. The orchestra’s closing gesture had scarcely dissipated before the fellows sharing my row were on their feet, cheering at full blast. They knew excellence when they heard it.
TANGLEWOOD FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
At Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 25-26, Lenox. www.tanglewood.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.