LENOX — No two editions of Tanglewood’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music are exactly alike, but the overall layout of the festival doesn’t usually change that much year to year. In normal years (not truncated by COVID-19), the festival offers several concerts across a long weekend. These mostly feature chamber music in Ozawa Hall performed by the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center and the New Fromm Players (a small squad of recent TMC alumni) with an event featuring the TMC Orchestra on the final day.
The other constant is the long wait times between pieces as pianos, music stands, and any number of other musical accoutrements are shuffled on and off stage. The grab-bag instrumentation of the chamber concerts is one of the festival’s major draws for me, and the length of the changeovers is certainly no fault of the commendable Tanglewood crew. However, I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed waiting for the stage to reset — that is, until this past Friday’s afternoon concert at Ozawa.
On one side of the reset, there was Erin Graham’s “Manual” (prepared piano, two singers, one cellist); on the other, Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerrilla” (four pianos, unaltered). The changeover between them was itself a performance of John Cage’s ”Variations III,” a piece “for any number of people performing any actions.” The frequency of those actions is predetermined; the actions themselves are not. Over roughly 12 minutes, several members of the crew loudly rolled equipment on and off stage, dropped mics, triggered sirens, dragged chairs across the floor, and listened to the echo — treating their workplace as a percussive playground.
Simultaneously, 14 musicians outside the hall laid into “Variations IV,” a similarly open-ended piece. The doors and windows were open, and in poured a merry jumble of improvisations and snippets from popular tunes. A mezzo-soprano trilled an aria from “Barber of Seville”; a trombonist pointed their bell at the hills and blasted away; tenor Matthew Corcoran proclaimed “Anyway, here’s ‘Wonderwall’!” and began to sing the Oasis hit-turned-meme at top volume. By the end, four pianos sat in a cloverleaf formation at center stage, ready to follow up the mashup mayhem with the clean lines and mesmerizing undulations of “Gay Guerrilla.” A truly first-rate juxtaposition.
The festival was directed by Ellen Highstein, who retires following this summer after 25 years at the helm of the TMC. The programs were curated in collaboration by Highstein and soprano Tony Arnold, composer George Lewis, pianist Stephen Drury, and cellist Astrid Schween, and their varied tastes made for a delightfully unpredictable lineup.
On Thursday evening, a small orchestra conjured images of swarming insects and murmurations of starlings during Alvin Singleton’s “Again,” and Arnold commanded the spotlight during the Delta blues-inflected “Waterlines,” composer Christopher Trapani’s response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on his native New Orleans. Boston Symphony Orchestra artistic partner Thomas Adès also made a brief solo appearance at the piano, with his own “Mazurkas.” On Sunday morning, listeners on the lawn lounged in the grass as Corcoran and guitarist Dieter Hennings cast a spell with Jesse Jones’s “Dark Is Yonder Town” and a heroic septet of Tanglewood fellows stormed Lewis’s bristling “Born Obbligato.”
Even before the audience heard a note of Monday evening’s grand finale, the event was already a coup of sorts. To conclude the festival, Tanglewood hosted the American premiere of English composer George Benjamin’s “Lessons in Love and Violence,” his highly anticipated third opera, with the composer himself conducting. It was a clear high note to end on for Highstein, who has built a working relationship with Benjamin over the past several decades.
Like Benjamin’s previous two operas, the spooky Pied Piper adaptation “Into the Little Hill” and the near-universally acclaimed erotic thriller “Written on Skin,” “Lessons” was created in collaboration with the English playwright and librettist Martin Crimp. “Lessons” also continues their custom of using a medieval legend as a skeleton for the plot, embellished with commentaries on humanity, cruelty, and power.
This time around it’s the story of the English king Edward II (he’s just called “King” in Crimp’s libretto), whose favoritism toward his courtier-possibly-lover Piers Gaveston helped lead to his eventual deposition. Queen Isabella and the nobleman Roger Mortimer installed the young heir apparent Edward III as a puppet monarch, the overthrown king died in captivity shortly afterward under mysterious circumstances, and Mortimer was then executed when a teenage Edward III asserted his own authority a few years later. (Reading the summary in the program book, a TMC fellow in the row behind me on Thursday exclaimed, “It’s like some George R.R. Martin thing!”)
Clocking in at a lean 90 minutes, there was zero fluff in the music or the text. Every gesture had its significance, every action its reaction. Benjamin and Crimp both have an unassailable command of storytelling; tension built without respite to a searing denoument as the music reflected and accented the emotions of the characters. The orchestration was dense but not overcrowded, and the sonic palette gave it an otherworldly quality that was sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish — here the hollow sound of a cimbalom and a hushed ripple of winds, there the infernal bleat of a contrabass trombone. “Drumming, I can hear drumming,” baritone Nathaniel Sullivan sang as the imprisoned King hallucinated in the penultimate scene. The only sounds that came from the orchestra were startlingly harsh snaps of the harp’s strings on top of a muted, ominous breeze from the double basses and cymbals.
The cast, made up of vocal fellows and recent alumni, turned out a powerhouse performance of the technically and challenging opera with no true innocent characters. Sullivan’s voice was regal but delicate in his portrayal of the King, suggesting the character’s weak will; he only whipped the veil off in the final scene when he unleashed his now-powerless fury against Daniel McGrew’s unctuous but steely Mortimer. As the Queen (called Isabel in the libretto), soprano Elizabeth Polese balanced on the knife edge between sympathetic and sadistic until she plunged to the sadistic side with a smile.
Tenor Edmond Rodriguez as the Boy and eventual Young King conveyed the child’s initial innocence in a pure, guileless high range. In his final scene, having been groomed to rule with authority and violence by Mortimer and Isabel, he seemed to have adopted some of McGrew’s steeliness: a nicely ironic callback to where the Boy learned those lessons. I left feeling both disquieted and dazzled, as if I had just broken open a geode and only gotten a glimpse of the riches within. Now when can I get a second look?
TANGLEWOOD FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
Aug 4-8. At Tanglewood, Lenox. www.tanglewood.org