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New Music at Tanglewood

Music Review
Sat Aug 10th, 2019

Zoë Martlew

Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music has moved into a striking and most comfortable new space at the BMO’s extensive Lenox campus, adding a dimension of modernity to music most definitely modern.  The festival began Thursday and continues through this weekend to Monday.  I attended one of three Friday concerts that presented four new works three of which were premiers.  All four had British connections, as the series has been artfully curated by Thomas Ades, Tanglewood’s resident composer and director of the festival.  

Composer Zoe Martlew played cello in a string trio named Voluspa, a 2018 composition that cleared the first fence as a new voice and went on to a clear round as a totally satisfactory piece that sustained our interest (fence number two) and clearing the higher hurdle of sustained meaning. She described the piece as a conversation between the three gods of time, time past, time present and time future. She also mentioned the paradox of describing the absence of the presence of a lost friend.  Her language was that of the musical abstract—minimal without being absurdly so.  She invites us to hear the sounds of the rolling hills of Dorset, the sounds of ancient stones, a tonal landscape. I was enchanted. A video of Martlew performing appears below.

Andrew Hamilton names his piece g=piano quartet (for Agnes Martin).  It is a homage for the American minimalist abstract artist whose work I recently viewed at the Guggenheim retrospective.  Martin’s work is intense, often created  by removing, or scraping away, reducing, and making less clear her lines or patterns. Hamilton’s quartet reminds us of these qualities.  The program intro by Jean Paulk Vachon, a musicologist based in Vienna, mentions references to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Samuel Beckett to give us a range of possibilities. I found the piece exhilarating, engrossing, and happy at the same time.

Erika Fox supplied her Hungarian Rhapsody of 1989 as an American premier. She, too, is based in England.  Her work was slightly disconcerting: intentionally so as her introduction written by Francesca McNeeley describes her work as not resolving oppositional elements, leaving us suspended.  Off-putting perhaps, but nevertheless engaging and not unfriendly.  We feel we are beginning to know the composer and to understand her unsettled feelings, as indeed we live in an unsettled world. This is a serious work and its seriousness is legitimate.

The final work of the afternoon was Revelacion of 2011, a U.S. premier by Hilda Paredes of Mexican birth but also British-based. Her work was the most modernist sounding of the day’s offerings.  It needs ten instruments including percussion and electronics. The piece ranges from bird-song captured by flutes and violins to moments of plucking, fervent plucking to dying plucking dissolving into sighing, then an animated tension; we move through a series of ideas in sounds and styles, a flight of flutes, rolling drums, a clarinet’s somber sounds, and doleful horn. It was a new world of sound signifying a worldliness both new and astonishing. It is our world; she reminds us that we had better get to know it.  Experiencing this music, we are enriched.  

The players of these fine pieces were drawn from the impressive collection of Tanglewood faculty and their equally impressive students. The festival has is own program with helpful introductions to each piece supplied by seriously fine writers.  I should add that the audience overflowed the space.  The excitement was shared by a growing crowd of music lovers.