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New Music at Tanglewood

Music review
by Stephen Kaye
Sat Aug 12th, 2017

Ruth Orth

Tanglewood (aka The Boston Symphony) is hosting a series on contemporary music (August 10 – 14). I attended the Friday afternoon concert that was curated by West Coast cellist Kathryn Bates who introduced me to six composers I had not heard and a piece by a familiar name that was new to me.  She has a singular taste that was noticeably not New York.  It was cool and reminded me of cool West Coast jazz that I first heard in the late 1950’s.

Three string quartets took the stage for the opening piece by New Zealand composer Jack Body (1944-2015), for the U.S. premiere of “Flury” in the original version.  It sounded like it might have been a string orchestra but then the quartets spoke to each other as single instruments of a single quartet might.  I thought it a handsome piece.  Ms. Bates was one of the cellists. It was played through twice, which made sense as it was short and needed a second airing.

“G Song” by Terry Riley, who is one of the grandfathers of contemporary music in this country, was a quartet in the classical mode with just hints of the repetitions for which he is best known.  This was artfully constructed music that showed a deep understanding of the quartet form.  The two violins played two lines in gentle counterpointed conversation while the cello and viola played harmony that made for a rich sound that was warm and pleasing. The flow could have been graphed by undulating waves. There were references to the American songbook. Haeni Lee and Edmund Chung, violins, Leonardo Vasquez, violist and Xiaolai Zhou cellist made a fine quartet.  They made the music inviting and accessible.    

Rene Orth’s “Stripped for string Quartet” (2015) introduced us to a Curtis trained musician-composer who just passed her 30th birthday.  Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation to accompany its “Metalworks” exhibit, it opens with a scratchy sound that might be pieces of metal being subjected to slow torture, but then it evolves into recognizable notes: sounds emerging from chaos, sounds struggling to emerge. Plenty of plucking, strophes and forms that identify with sorrow or even agony; the piece ends with faint high notes wistfully played as a eulogy.

Moritz Eggert, a German composer from Munich, offered a piece for percussion and string quartet called “Croatoan II: In the Sandbox” (2000).  The drumming was entirely by hands, not sticks, so it was a soft sound that blended well with the strings.  It begins with drumming; the strings enter in slowly gaining assurance and finally join on a roll.  The sounds are not dissident, and not lyrical, but it is music and it was pleasing.  About the music, Eggert says: “We don't know anything, and that’s good” referring to the mystery of America’s first Virginia settlement that disappeared without a trace leaving only the word “CROATOAN” found carved on a plank. The music plumbs that mystery. “Croatoan is what it is not and isn’t what it is: the quest for a more actual music…. There is nothing more fruitful than the situation of confusion in which we find ourselves at the moment.” The quotations are from the program notes.  Eggert is a force that will be heard.

After the intermission, a quartet led by cellist Francesca McNeeley with Samantha Bennett, Xiaofan Liu and Mary Ferrillo showed their adaptability by transforming themselves into a Zen state.  With bare feet, three played 21 glasses and bowls, filled with water to produce carefully tuned microtonal sounds to achieve the exact tonality desired by composer Kui Dong while the cello improvises phrases restricted to specified pitches.  They then change positions in a slow progression around the stage. A music box provides additional pitches.  Kui Dong teaches at Dartmouth.  This is theater. The effect is soothing.

Lei Lang is Chinese composer whose background includes being a child prodigy, a Harvard Ph.D, Chinese calligraphy, a Rome prize, a Guggenheim and now an associate professor at UC San Diego.  His “Gobi Canticle for violin and cello” (2005) was an elegant musical statement that had clear Mongolian folk elements mixed with a sustained modern feeling.  Violinist Cameron Daly gave us a heartfelt rendering that took us to the vast spaces of Mongolia.  He was supported by Chava Appiah on cello. Their playing was superb.

The final piece by Ben Johnston was introduced by Ms. Bates who called Johnston a Pythagorean American.  His Quartet No 4, “Amazing Grace” (1973) was beautifully played by New Fromm Players Bennett, Liu, Ferrillo and McNeeley.  I thought it Blue Grass fiddling of a different dimension.  Rich sounds calling up the familiar melodies of the American South that, like a record that slows down, moves into a different sphere.  This was not misty nostalgia, but a fresh look at American history in the light of modern music, an overlay of seriousness, angst, and a sense of moving forward into a new era.

This richly rewarding afternoon was the product of inspired curating and hours of practice by talented young players.  It proved that contemporary music is much more than the angular dissonances of the Vienna School that has given modern music a bad name.  Ms. Bates was an exemplary proponent of composers who make modern sounds that one can understand, enjoy, and who leads us into new territory. I must applaud the helpful program whose notes are models of informative musicology.