LENOX — In July 1940, as skies darkened over Europe, idealism was ablaze in the woods of Massachusetts. “The creation of a Music Center in America,” Serge Koussevitzky told a crowd gathered at Tanglewood, “becomes more significant in these days, than in any other time.”
The great Russian conductor — whose speech, complete with markings to aid his English pronunciation, is on view this summer at a Visitors Center exhibition — dreamed of a school where luminaries drawn from the entire field of classical music would transmit their knowledge to the next generation, thereby safeguarding the humanistic values he found in this music precisely at the moment they were being gravely threatened abroad.
Koussevitzky’s academy was to be a model of the classical world as it should be, a place insulated from commercial pressures, where living composers would be restored to a place of honor in a culture that too often valorized only the interpreters of masterpieces past. Having two major composers on his faculty the first summer — Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith — seemed designed to underscore the point.
In subsequent decades, even as the BSO has at times embraced other rather less Koussevitzkian directions, the orchestra has labored to keep the Tanglewood Music Center by and large a preserve of its founder’s vision. This fact never feels more palpable than during the annual Festival of Contemporary Music (or FCM, in the insider’s shorthand), one week each summer that seems to invert familiar norms, a time when reigning conservatisms take a holiday, Ozawa Hall becomes a cheerful laboratory of the new, and freshly minted works are wolfed down by large and enthusiastic crowds. At one hybrid concert on Saturday night, a modest exodus from the hall took place, rather surreally, before a work by Brahms. “Too many triads,” joked one composer.
This year’s edition of FCM — curated by John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, and Oliver Knussen — has been packed with premieres of works commissioned, in a laudable and entirely fitting gesture, to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary. It also brought a timely opportunity to honor the memory of the composer Gunther Schuller, a towering figure who died in June at 89, and who worked tirelessly, at times combatively, to uphold the founding mission of the Music Center in his numerous leadership roles between 1963 and 1985.
As it turned out, Thursday night’s Schuller memorial program did not proceed as planned, with both of the evening’s conductors forced to withdraw (Knussen due to a visa problem, and Stefan Asbury on account of the birth of his son). Fortunately, the young English conductor Jonathan Berman was able to step into the breach, leading persuasive performances of several challenging works including the premiere of Schuller’s brilliant “Magical Trumpets.”
This is a piece that Schuller had apparently written partly from the hospital but you would never guess given how thoroughly infused it is with a bright optimism and sly wit from its opening fortissimo blast. Scored for 12 trumpets in eight different keys, the work is a brief and at times jazzy stroll through a vast range of styles, with the trumpets using several types of mutes to conjure various rarefied sonorities. It’s not uncommon to approach a composer’s “late” works with expectations of gravitas, but here Schuller’s accumulated wisdom is voiced not through orotund pronouncements but with a winning, ageless exuberance also present in his recent “Dreamscape.” The performers, which included five BSO players, principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs among them, nailed the first performance. Berman, while the crowd vigorously applauded, held the score aloft.
Another Schuller tribute was meaningfully integrated below the surface of Gandolfi’s delightful new work “Carroll in Numberland,” a setting of Lewis Carroll poems (featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw) that brims with this poetry’s sense of playful effervescence. While composing this score, Gandolfi, at the point in the music where he learned of Schuller’s death, began working in references to Schuller’s signature tone row.
Gandolfi’s work appeared on a particularly rewarding Saturday program that included newly commissioned scores by Augusta Read Thomas, whose inventive strings-percussion octet was titled “Selene — Moon Chariot Rituals”; Steven Mackey, who delivered a delicately bewitching work called “Madrigal” for female voice and percussion; and Bright Sheng, whose “Deep Red” is a lavishly textured and absorbing marimba concerto in all but name (George Nickson was the formidable soloist). Also well-represented on that program was music of Andy Vores (“Fabrication 15: Amplification”) and Marti Epstein (a beautifully evocative Quartet from 2007, which featured the BSO’s Robert Sheena on English horn).
Highlights were numerous across four recent FCM programs (other festival concerts are being reviewed separately). Saturday evening, Yehudi Wyner’s “Sonnet: In the Arms of Sleep” was a wise, arresting setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem (sung by Lucy Shelton), one that heeds the call of its own text, which begins “I am in need of music that would flow/ Over my fretful, feeling fingertips.” On Friday, John Harbison’s “Seven Poems of Lorine Niedecker” (with pianist Ursula Oppens and soprano Sarah Tuttle) deftly amplified the resonance of Niedecker’s richly allusive verse. Helen Grime’s ear-catching duo, “Embrace,” found new common ground in the typically disparate sound worlds of the trumpet and clarinet. And Shulamit Ran’s delicately tinted chamber work “Birkat Haderekh,” for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, glowed with a sense of gentle but firm supplication, its title rendered from the Hebrew as “Blessing for the Road.”
In addition to the Schuller premiere, Thursday night also included a challenging new work called “Megalith” by Charles Wuorinen, which placed pianist Peter Serkin in sharply etched, fractured dialogue with a large mixed ensemble, including groups of musicians in two balconies. Elliott Carter’s “A Sunbeam’s Architecture” featured tenor Nicholas Phan, who sensitively negotiated these lapidary settings of poems by E. E. Cummings, supported by another large ensemble bravely led by Berman on no rehearsal.
Over the course of the weekend, whenever Ozawa Hall was not crackling with the sound of the new, the action shifted to the Shed, where on Friday night Christoph von Dohnanyi led a forcefully articulated all-Beethoven program (including a debut by Vadim Gluzman as soloist in the Violin Concerto), and on Saturday, Michael Tilson Thomas led a strongly characterized account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, with Emanuel Ax’s elegant Mozart, somewhat untidily supported, on the first half. On Monday night, Tilson Thomas will venture down to Ozawa Hall to close out FCM with a program honoring the guiding lights of the Music Center’s founding generation: Bernstein, Copland, and Lukas Foss.
FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
At: Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.