Music review

Family ties bind final Festival of Contemporary Music concerts

Michael Tilson Thomas leading the TMC Orchestra in Ozawa Hall.
Michael Tilson Thomas leading the TMC Orchestra in Ozawa Hall.(Hilary Scott)

LENOX — The day before his new String Quartet premiered at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music on Sunday, Oscar Bettison mentioned during a brief composer discussion that he hadn’t wanted to divulge the work’s programmatic nature, then divulged it anyway, admitting he was inspired by the experience of being a new father. The quartet — in a confidently gritty performance by Lifan Zhu, Samantha Bennett, Jacob Shack, and Jesse Christeson — evoked that disorienting blur: a perpetual-motion crush of off-balance rituals; a fitful slumber of sliding-pitch sighs; a susurrant stirring of activity (and anxiety) in a pre-dawn haze of harmonics.

Bettison’s restive newborn — the last of the week’s premieres, all commissioned in honor of the Tanglewood Music Center’s 75th anniversary — was appropriate. This FCM, more than style or innovation, emphasized parentage — sometimes literally, as in works by Shulamit Ran and Steven Mackey introduced in earlier concerts.


The lineage most celebrated was that engendered by Tanglewood itself, generational chains of teacher-student influence and mentorship. Sunday’s concert paid concentrated tributes to distinguished former faculty. The New Fromm Players gave precise dash to George Perle’s “Critical Moments 2,” febrile sketches of precise, heightened color. Violinist Robyn Quinnett, cellist Sonia Mantell, and pianist (and TMC faculty) Stephen Drury made rich work of Hans Werner Henze’s “Adagio Adagio,” an all-too-brief exhalation of Romantic mood.

Oliver Knussen was represented (in absentia, due to visa difficulties) by his “Two Organa”: brilliant chamber-orchestra displays of his uncanny sympathy with the self-contained logic and charming seriousness of child’s play. Conductor Jonathan Berman kept the jeweled gears wound and spinning. A brawny reading of “Dark Crossing,” by Mark-Anthony Turnage — another TMC student-then-teacher — proved a more primeval genesis, an evolving thicket of heavy rhythms and reiterated motives.

The new arrivals were even divine. Thursday’s concert had featured Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Concerto per la notte di Natale dell’anno 1956,” a distilled, diamantine advent of Christmas lauds; Sunday brought Julian Anderson’s String Quartet No. 2, “300 Weinachtslieder,” microtonally refracting the German carols of its title into shimmering avant-garde haloes. (The quartet from Bettison’s premiere again made joyfully unorthodox sound.)


Indeed, the festival always seems to await a savior’s birth — a talent with the charismatic aplomb to assume the revered mantle of Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, or Leonard Bernstein. That holy trinity anchored Monday’s unabashedly retrospective finale, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the TMC Orchestra.

Boston Symphony clarinetist William Hudgins was the soloist in Bernstein’s 1949 Hindemith-meets-hot-jazz “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs,” Tilson Thomas turbocharging the score with kinetic speed. The full orchestra locked into Foss’s provocatively obsessive 1979 “Quintets,” a pulsing, static meditation building to an extroverted apocalypse. Then Copland’s 1957 “Orchestral Variations,” the sharp modernist implements of the composer’s 1930 “Piano Variations” transformed into atomic-era ordnance.

The program then reached further back to Charles Ives’s “Holidays” Symphony. Tilson Thomas dedicated the performance to the memory of Gunther Schuller (longtime Tanglewood — and Ives — torchbearer), led the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Chorus in pristine renditions of hymns and songs Ives used as source materials, then prefaced each movement by reciting Ives’s own descriptions of the programmatic scenery. It all seemed designed to root the music — and, by extension, Tanglewood — in the New England soil, a wellspring of American musical innovation.

The populous performance divided its podium duties. Under Tilson Thomas, “Washington’s Birthday” shivered and square-danced; “Decoration Day” (conducted by TMC fellow Ruth Reinhardt) marched with somber, impressionistic reflection; “The Fourth of July” (led by fellow Marzena Diakun, with occasional polyrhythmic assistance from Reinhardt) was a raucous, decades-before-its-time happening. But the finale best punctuated the festival, the music, led by guest conductor Christian Reif, rolling forth in grand, complex waves, the chorus hymning tribute to the pilgrims, the week’s mix of commemoration and genealogy summed up in the movement’s two assigned holidays: Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day.


2015 Festival of Contemporary Music

At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Sunday and Monday

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at