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Good reasons to celebrate '38

Jamie Barton performs 'Sometimes' at Tanglewood. Jamie Barton performs "Sometimes" at Tanglewood. (Hilary Scott)

LENOX -- "The Generation of '38," the theme of this year's Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, seemed at first glance a catchall for lack of a real theme, or possibly an act of vanity. Then, flipping through the program book, one realized that a freakish number of well-known American composers were born in that year: John Harbison, Joan Tower, Charles Wuorinen, Philip Glass, William Bolcom, and John Corigliano, among them.

Add a few composers born just before or after -- David del Tredici and Olly Wilson (1937) and Ellen Zwilich (1939) -- and others less familiar but just as good, and "The Generation of '38" began to seem a brilliant way to gather the notable voices of an era, and to show they're very much alive.

As the festival's director (his fourth turn since 1992), Harbison focused each concert on a different aspect of music, balancing styles and instruments and encouraging compositions with roots in improvised performance and jazz. Observers of past festivals said they hadn't heard programs so obligingly brief, and so pervasively tonal. "It used to be as thorny and academic as you could take," said a Boston physician and regular. "This has been so lyrical."

These composers have had a winding journey. They had to pick their way through the battle camps of Stravinsky Neoclassicism vs. Schoenbergian Serialism, some leaning one way, some the other. They loved jazz and show music, which promised an American way forward, and later embraced synthesizers and tape. But amid the roar of rock 'n' roll and the mass marketing of pop stars, the makers of concert music retreated into academe, and to mini-festivals like this one. "The Generation of '38" had little choice to be eclectic and experimental. The question is, What else would they be?

Just how eclectic was obvious in Sunday night's concert at Ozawa Hall, when David Borden's soothing electronic fusion of jazz piano and synthesizer ("Earth Journeys") was followed by John Heiss's hushed and tonal "Five Songs From James Joyce" for soprano, clarinet, and piano; Theodore Antoniou's "Lament for Manos," a haunting essay in the softest register for the clarinet; and the screaming atonality of del Tredici's "I Hear an Army," for string quartet and soprano. "Army" had been premiered at Tanglewood in 1964, a relic of revolution. But this was not a retrospective. Most of the music was recent, and Charles Fussell's set of cool, elegant songs for baritone, "Venture," was being heard in public for the first time. Wilson's 1976 "Sometimes," a long scene for a miked solo voice with an electronic backdrop that deconstructs the spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," closed the evening.

No one could fault soprano Lucy Shelton for the inaudibility of most of the poem in "I Hear an Army." Del Tredici sets most of it in the highest part of her range, where words are almost impossible. Wilson's work was a startling concept, but didn't grow more interesting after the first 10 minutes. Most of these were earnest pieces without contrasting "B" sections or themes to provide relief, irony, perspective.

Tuesday night's concert, devoted to piano works, was less eclectic, more deeply involved with tradition (both classical and popular), and more fun. The audience even laughed -- at a little Tin Pan Alley signoff in a piece by the late Ellsworth Milburn. Sheer pleasurable virtuosity was indulged in one world premiere, William Thomas McKinley's Chopinesque etudes, an honorable imitation, not a ripoff. "White Lies for Lomax," a commissioned work by recent Tanglewood alumnus Mason Bates, was smoky jazz-club improvisation with a snatch of Southern work song, taped in the '30s by Alan Lomax, stuck on the very end, an afterthought one wishes had been an organic part of the piece. In his Bagatelles for piano and percussion, amid breathtaking virtuosic jazzy riffs, Milburn found a place for different moods, and quotes from "West Side Story" and the medieval plainchant "Dies Irae."

After these boisterous, lighter pieces, Harbison's "Abu Ghraib" cut all the more deeply. Premiered at the 2006 Rockport Festival, this is a dark piece, at once sweet and dissonant, in which piano and cello (Norman Fischer and Jeanne Kierman) go in and out of synch, with suggestions of innocence destroyed (a Middle Eastern lullaby dissolves with a startling rap on the piano lid) and self-righteousness ("Rock of Ages") undone by a final harmonic earthquake.

Too numerous to mention, the Tanglewood Music Center students who performed most of these pieces gave the composers all the brilliance and commitment they could have asked for.

'Related'

Festival of Contemporary Music

At: Tanglewood, Lenox, Sunday and Tuesday

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