For the second time in as many years, Tanglewood's annual Festival of Contemporary Music — one of the signature events of the Tanglewood Music Center, the festival's educational and training arm — will be marked by the absence of a cherished American composer who was to have been its focus. Last year's gathering included a concert planned as a salute to Gunther Schuller, which became a memorial when Schuller died in June.
This year's festival was to have been led by Steven Stucky, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose music — deeply informed by European modernism, yet also recognizably American in its harmonic and coloristic openness — rose to a level of stature that made him, in the words of The New Yorker, "more or less the standing composer-in-residence of America's orchestral élite." He died in February at 66 from an aggressive form of brain cancer. This year's FCM will open on July 21 with a performance by Norman Fischer of Stucky's "Dialoghi" for solo cello, a tribute to a composer widely felt to have died too young.
The addition of that piece is one of the very few changes to Stucky's curation of the festival, which was virtually complete before his death, according to TMC director Ellen Highstein, who said she'd chosen Stucky precisely because "he hadn't been a major voice here before. He's certainly a major figure in American music, and it was funny that we hadn't done more of his music and hadn't had him as a major participatory voice before."
Highstein, who hadn't known Stucky prior to planning the festival, said he was "a dream" to work with. "He could not have been more thoughtful, more generous, funnier. He was great. And I think he planned a really great festival.
"I will tell you, this is a selfish, awful thing to say: I feel so cheated," she continued. "I am so angry at his cancer. This was a person, clearly, we all would've loved to know better."
The composer Donald Crockett knew him extremely well. A longtime University of Southern California faculty member, Crockett met Stucky when the latter came to California as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's composer in residence in the late 1980s. One of the first things Stucky did on arrival was get to know as many local composers as he could. His LA residency, originally intended to last two years, stretched to almost two decades, and he and Crockett became close friends.
"Very genuine, very caring, with a strong sense of fairness," Crockett said of Stucky, speaking by phone from Aspen. "And he was a very gifted and caring teacher; that was part of his personality, and that extended into his genuine interest in young composers." Among Stucky's notable students are Joseph Phibbs — whose First String Quartet will have its American premiere in the FCM's second concert — Hannah Lash, and Sean Shepherd.
"His sense of harmony is wonderful, and his control over materials," Crockett said of his friend's music. "I think he's said more than once how his goal was always to make his music so extremely clear that a listener could immediately get a strong sense of what it was."
Highstein said that unlike some past FCM directors, Stucky did not approach the curation with some grand, preconceived concept. Instead, what emerged was a network of relationships, both personal and artistic. The first work on the July 21 program, after "Dialoghi," is "Chain 1" by Witold Lutoslawski, one of Stucky's most important mentors. Music by two of Stucky's friends follows: "Five Images after Sappho" by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the LA Philharmonic's music director during much of Stucky's tenure, and Magnus Lindberg's "Marea." Stucky's Chamber Concerto closes the program in its East Coast premiere.
Highstein and Crockett both said that while they were aware of Stucky's cancer, his death came as a shock. At their last meeting in early December, Highstein recalled, the composer told her he would be "a little hard to reach" during the following week, because he was having brain surgery. Highstein blanched, but Stucky was optimistic, and remained so through their last few e-mail exchanges before he died.
"There's not a person [in the festival] who didn't have either a personal or a collegial relationship with Steve," she said. "That's the way they start and end their e-mails: 'And we'll miss him. We'll miss him.' So this is a presence who'll be missed, but he's also there."
Crockett, whose 1999 chamber piece "Whistling in the Dark" will be included on the July 23 program, said that he found Stucky improbably upbeat, almost to the end. "He was definitely fighting," he recalls of one phone conversation. A week later, as Crockett was preparing to call his friend again, he learned that he had died. "It was a huge shock."
Asked if he had any final thoughts, Crockett recalled numerous occasions of accompanying Stucky to hear the Philharmonic. Stucky, a former violist, had a particularly intimate knowledge of the orchestral repertoire.
"They'd be playing something — maybe it was Ravel or Stravinsky or something," Crockett recounted. "We'd sit there, and a passage would happen. And he'd just turn to me and smile."
There was a long silence.
"He was a great friend," Crockett added.
Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music
At: Tanglewood, Lenox, July 21-25. Tickets: $12-$55. www.bso.org