LENOX — Midway through the world premiere of Nathan Davis’s macrocosmic masterpiece, “The Sand Reckoner,” the word “myriad” melted in the air of Seiji Ozawa Hall, layering and tessellating in six voices on a text by Archimedes. It seemed to shake off its semantic meaning, dissolve into pure sound, and re-assemble itself into its form. Myriad were the styles, myriad were the sounds, and myriad were the discoveries at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music kickoff concert.
“The Sand Reckoner” was the greatest of these discoveries. The texts married math and poetry across the centuries, with selections from a Middle English Bible and William Blake (the latter sung by the balmy-voiced mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck) interspersed between busy passages of Archimedes. The six singers were uniformly excellent, and gritty electronics lashed against a delicate celeste played by one of the festival’s curators, International Contemporary Ensemble’s Jacob Greenberg. Here was music of spheres, both as tiny as a grain of sand and as large as a world.
The annual festival’s tone largely hinges on its curators, and with this year headed up by Greenberg, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Kathryn Bates, it looks to be less academic and more alternative. Two more discoveries came via Phyllis Chen’s “Chimers” and Anthony Cheung’s “All thorn, but cousin to your rose.” Chen is both a toy-piano maven and a member of ICE, and her piece evoked innocence and smallness with inquisitive clarinet and violin. Tuning forks rattling against the toy piano’s exposed rods added a satisfying distortion. Cheung’s piece was a metatextual monodrama commentary on translation and artistry, with Greenberg again anchoring a keyboard instrument (this time piano) and soprano Paulina Swierczek acting as the audience’s guide through layers of Nabokov, Google Translate, and Edgar Allan Poe. She played her role like a sassy schoolmistress, showing off crisp diction, a rich voice that could go in a blink from speaking to soaring, and a killer side-eye that she reserved for the text’s snarkiest comments.
Each half of the program also featured a 20th-century piece. The first half offered an excellent set of Kurtàg songs, split between tenor Daniel McGrew and baritone Ryne Cherry. The second of “Three Ancient Inscriptions” was jolted by McGrew’s snarling face and viciously beautiful timbre, and Cherry’s regal bearing and prayerful melismas in the first of his two “Hölderlin Songs” stood in sharp contrast to the unrestrained mad scene he threw down in the final song. Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Meditation on the Bach Chorale ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit’” rooted itself in fragments of a hymn tune, but its church was haunted by dark mystery in stuttering col legno, keening harmonics, and Nathan Ben-Yehuda’s harpsichord pounding and trembling under the hymn’s final stirring appearance.
To say that going from Gubaidulina’s subtly luminous music to George Lewis’s “Anthem” was a mood whiplash would be an understatement. Lewis’s piece was a riot of hooting, honking, squeaking and grumbling with an ensemble of Fromm players and guest performers, who were mostly members of ICE. The elastic Teddy Poll conducted, and the piece was fronted by composer and soprano Kate Soper, who could have a viable career as an auctioneer if the way she fired out rapid syllables between frenetic Sprechstimme wails was any indication. However, an impassioned performance wasn’t enough to disentangle this overcrowded piece.
FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
At Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Thursday. Continues through Aug. 14.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.