Festival celebrates tour of a generation
This year's installment of Tanglewood's annual Festival of Contemporary Music was devoted to the "Generation of '38" -- a group of composers born in or around that year, many of whom have reached a certain sweet spot in their careers. They are young enough to remain vital but old enough to have gained prominence, recognition, and the ears of both large institutions and a certain segment of the listening public.
John Harbison, himself a '38er, directed this year's festival, and Judith Tick was its consulting scholar, providing an erudite three-part program essay weighing the social, political, and artistic influences that have molded these composers through the decades, from the Vietnam War and feminism to the emergence of the post-war European avant-garde and the powerful focus on serial composition at certain universities in the 1960s.
Those who have reasonably sought a more forward-looking direction for festival programming may have been unconvinced by this highly retrospective approach, a summing up more than a breaking of new ground. It is disappointing that, across all the concerts, only two young composers had their work featured. But taken on its own terms, the conceit at least had impressive numbers to bolster its case. Those born in or around 1938 include William Bolcom, Joan Tower, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Charles Wuorinen, David Del Tredici, Charles Fussell, Olly Wilson, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, and many others. In fact, the most suggestive aspect of this theme is the sheer volume of important composers to emerge from this generation, a phenomenon that, as Tick suggests, may be partially attributed to the robustness of music education in the public schools at that time, and the number of distinguished émigré musicians who fled Hitler's Europe and landed on American shores.
But beyond their sheer numbers, these composers have migrated in such diverse directions that it becomes almost impossible to speak meaningfully about the generation as a whole. In a way, the festival's theme worked best when posed with a question mark, or in other words, when taken as a reminder of the way artistic free will and the sheer contingency of life seem to trump any notion of social or generational determinism. Many of these composers picked up similar ingredients through their upbringings and educations, but they welded them into unique alloys with properties all their own.
I attended three festival programs, beginning with a concert on Wednesday night that featured works by four prominent '38ers, admirably performed by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under the direction of TMC fellows and faculty, and with a parade of soloists. The guitarist Eliot Fisk worked his way rather tentatively through Corigliano's "Troubadours," a series of inventive, wide-ranging variations on a soft-spoken theme, set off by translucent orchestral chords of great stillness and mystery. The work's quiet, introspective lyricism placed it worlds apart from Wuorinen's Rhapsody for violin and orchestra, a ferocious snarl of a concerto, brilliantly orchestrated with jagged fanfares and spiky lines erupting from all corners of the stage. Into this backdrop, violinist Yuki Numata expertly carved the solo part, making its knotty dissonances and expressive leaps seem no more daunting than the challenges posed by a Mozart concerto.
The second half of the concert opened not with a bang but with many bangs, that is, with Tower's dazzling "Strike
Two nights later, the BSO under James Levine offered its own contribution to the festival as part of a program that also featured Beethoven, Ravel, and some limpid Mozart courtesy of pianist Richard Goode. The contemporary work was Harbison's Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra, performed by principal bass Edwin Barker on an instrument once owned by former BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky. Harbison's work showcases the mellow singing tone of the bass, and its capacity for virtuoso display not unlike its more petite string siblings. The first two movements are full of expressive solo lines often colorfully annotated by the woodwinds, and a prominent role is given to the orchestra's entire bass section. Bright splashes of percussion mark the rapid finale. Barker's tone was sweet, his playing dexterous, and his manner somewhat modest, as if coaxing the listener in rather than reaching out to grab a lapel.
In case more evidence of the '38ers' stylistic diversity were needed, a concert on Thursday night recalled the insistent pull of jazz on this generation by featuring the Julius Hemphill Sextet in a vibrant set of Hemphill's own jazz scores, with six saxophonists stacking up their lines into beautifully rugged towers of tone. The second half was given over to a reunion of Musica Elettronica Viva, an experimental group founded more than 40 years ago by Curran, Teitelbaum, and Rzewski among others. The performance dove into the world of chance and of sampling, reminding us that some among this generation were deeply influenced by the philosophies of John Cage and the emergence of electronic music. The set itself was one long spontaneously composed electro-acoustic collage, full of nature sounds, foghorn-like tones, piano chords, digitally distorted voices in different languages, scraps of pop and world music, abrasive servings of raw noise, etc.
As Curran admitted in his pre-concert comments, this type of composition is a risky affair, and to these ears, the collage never cohered into anything greater than its parts. Somewhere in the middle an airplane rumbled overhead. Or was that another sample? It didn't seem to matter, which may have also been part of the point.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.