LENOX — Even given the way Tanglewood’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music often plays fast and loose with the term “contemporary,” an entire program devoted to Charles Ives, dead since 1954, would seem to rather stretch the category. In practice, though, Saturday’s concert (conducted by Gunther Schuller) effectively purled one of this festival’s running threads. With festival director Oliver Knussen not attempting anything like a stylistic catch-all — most composers British or American, most compositions allied to a particular post-serial style of new music: chromatic, complex, conscientiously wrought — the main contrast on the first four concerts became that between music eager to persuade the listener of the composer’s rapport, and music content to let the listener try and catch up.
At Thursday night’s opening, it was the younger composers aiming for the reassuringly grand. Luke Bedford’s “Or Voit Tout En Aventure” (conducted by Jonathan Berman, with soprano YoonGeong Lee as an impressive soloist) set medieval poems regarding music’s constant churn toward novelty — the 14th-century shock of the new, a concept largely subsumed under a full, solemnly imposing chamber-ensemble sound. Similar richness permeated Sean Shepherd’s “These Particular Circumstances,” a rambling chamber symphony (again conducted by Berman): an instrumental paint box skillfully worked through, quotes from Ravel and Holst dropped in like references.
While the younger set strove to impress, the old guard had brainy fun, be it Elliott Carter’s darkly, playfully enigmatic “Double Trio” (conducted by Vlad Agachi), or the even-more-idiosyncratic “Quickly,” by the late Niccolò Castiglioni, fixated on sparse textures, insouciantly tossing aside the weight of history. (Alexandre Bloch conducted.) Even the initial, grim cast of Harrison Birtwistle’s “Cantus Iambeus” — dark sonic clouds dropping sharp, accented hail — brought forth a wry, clanking crush of rhythms. (Bloch again conducted.)
Pianist Gloria Cheng’s Friday recital opened with Birtwistle’s “Betty Freeman: Her Tango,” dedicated to the late Los Angeles patron and enthusiast, cracking that dance into glinting splinters. The program’s California-connection theme may have promised Hollywood bustle — the reputation channeled in “LA trend: noise,” one of John Harbison’s “Leonard Stein Anagrams,” whimsically chromatic eulogies for the pianist and Schoenbergite — but, apart from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Dichotomie,” the mood was largely wistful and restrained.
Knussen’s “Ophelia’s Last Dance” was redolent with waltz, a hazy, glittering swirl, harmony and meter scrupulously blurred. Both George Benjamin’s “Shadowlines” — canonic austerities stacked in profusion — and Bernard Rands’s “Preludes” continued the format of distilled atmospheres sustained with nonchalant assurance. Even a surprise premiere, John Williams’s “Conversations,” a beguiling rumination on jazz and gospel tropes, seemed more to eavesdrop on the composer’s train of thought than dramatize it for public consumption.
Sunday morning recapitulated Thursday’s pattern: youth at work, experience at play. If Shepherd’s Oboe Quartet and Helen Grime’s kaleidoscopic “Seven Pierrot Miniatures” were vibrant, impeccably crafted, but stylistically and formally conventional, Benjamin’s “Piano Figures” (in a commanding rendering by Ryan MacEvoy McCul-lough) showed the possibilities of a more unorthodox jewel box. And even the older composers’ youthful works displayed quirky spark: the gorgeously lean oboe-and-harp tangles of Birtwistle’s “Dinah and Nick’s Love Song”; Castiglioni’s “Tropi,” a 1950s high-modernist essay with sufficient cheek to throw a gentle, repeated-note curveball at its center; David Del Tredici’s early piano solo “Soliloquy,” its angularity a long way from the composer’s later neo-Romanticism, but his dramatic flair fully formed.
Marti Epstein’s string quartet “Hidden Flowers,” a premiere, was the festival’s stylistic outsider: a meditative marathon of softness, stasis, and silence. But in its extremes, it cast its lot with those other composers — going back to Ives — with confident faith in their obsessions.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri