LENOX — The Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music — FCM for short — is an annual bonanza for new music fans. Part of the pleasure of attending comes in relishing the sense of alternate universe created here for a few fleeting days. In this fantastical world, all composer-audience rifts have been healed; concert halls are packed day after day with receptive listeners; challenging new works are greeted with whoops and cheers; and boldness is simply celebrated — with no apparent need for compensatory, apologetic flights into tradition.
In progress since Thursday night, this year’s edition of the FCM has been true to form, even as composer Thomas Adès, directing for the first time, has been bringing a fresh perspective and new voices to the five programs he has curated. This year’s festival has also, however, been marked by an air of loss. The passing earlier this month of Oliver Knussen, a towering British musical figure closely associated with the Tanglewood Music Center, has lent the concerts of the last few days a quickened sense of both occasion and of tribute.
Those qualities were especially palpable at Sunday morning’s program, on which violinist Jacob Schafer and pianist Danny Zelibor gave a touching, pellucid account of Knussen’s “Reflection,” an eight-minute piece written in 2016. Generous in spirit from its opening bars, the music is beautifully lyrical without sentimentality or cliché, deeply learned without aridity. “Reflection” in fact would sit comfortably alongside more traditional repertoire, and it deserves to be taken up widely by recitalists. Separately, a set of Knussen’s songs and a “Sea-Interlude” from his opera “Where the Wild Things Are” will be performed in memoriam as the opening of Monday’s fifth and final FCM program.
Sunday’s program also included one of Knussen’s favorite composers, Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-96), a lesser-known Italian master whose music combined techniques of the midcentury European avant-garde with a kind of sparkling sensual allure that sets his sound worlds apart. Castiglioni’s “Cantus planus” features 24 epigrams by 17th-century German mystic Angelus Silesius, set for two sopranos (here, Fotina Naumenko and Mary Bonhag, both in radiant voice) delicately supported by a mixed chamber ensemble (conducted by Gemma New). Sunday’s performance was a stunner.
It was preceded by Harrison Birtwistle’s highly ritualized “Cortege.” Described by the composer as “a ceremony for 14 musicians,” this piece was written to be performed without a conductor as each player rises in turn from his or her spot to perform a portion of the work’s angular, impassioned melody. The conceit would seem facile in lesser hands, but Birtwistle’s writing is taut and muscularly virtuosic throughout. This account was riveting.
Adès as a conductor took center stage in introducing music by two of the festival’s new arrivals — Oliver Christophe Leith and Francisco Coll — on Thursday’s opening FCM program. “Dream Horse” was the title of Leith’s intriguing piece, a TMC commission for soprano, baritone, and mixed chamber ensemble. Equine resonances — ancient and modern, dark and dryly humorous — inform two of the work’s three movements, including its central panel in which a baritone recites a litany of dream-related horse names culled from the annals of the Grand National race in Liverpool: “Dream Free,” “Dream Machine,” “Dream Magic,” and so forth. The work ends obliquely with a setting of “The Tables Turned” from Wordsworth’s “Lyrical Ballads.”
Coll, a young Spanish composer, was represented by his “Four Iberian Miniatures,” an earthy, extroverted violin concerto in all but name, in which popular dance forms appear as if warped in a funhouse mirror. Violinist Chi Li gave a superb performance of the hurtling solo part. Also on Thursday’s program and new to FCM was the Australian-born, Los Angeles-based composer Veronika Krausas, represented by a work for small ensemble entitled “analemma.” Led by Yu An Chang, the piece was notable for its timbral sophistication and its subtle rhythmic interplay. A Lithuanian lullaby emerges beautifully in its closing moments, as if half-remembered in a dream.
Among the other FCM performances I was able to attend, standouts included Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Életút (Lebenslauf)” for two pianos and two basset horns, and his “Officium Breve” string quartet. Both served as reminders that in note-by-note artistic integrity, this Hungarian master remains unmatched. Javier Álvarez’s “Trompatufarria al Pastor” was a bracing call to order for four horns. Sean Shepherd and Andrew Norman, two Americans born in 1979, were represented, respectively, by a lively oboe quartet and an eloquent flute quartet (“Light Screens”). And Judith Weir’s piquant and charming “Wake your wild voice” found a bassoon and cello joining forces in tribute to the bagpipe, with its combination of chant and drone.
As usual, the performances, mostly by TMC Fellows, were exactingly prepared and executed with the highest standards of professionalism. This year’s festival culminates Monday night in Ozawa Hall with an orchestral program featuring, in addition to the Knussen selections, works by Gerald Barry, Lutoslawski, and Adès himself, who will lead his own “In Seven Days,” with Kirill Gerstein as piano soloist.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.