LENOX - Something remarkable happened this week in the Berkshires. The Tanglewood Music Center for the first time in its history devoted its Festival of Contemporary Music to the work of a single composer - Elliott Carter - in honor of his 100th birthday this December. I do not know of any living composer who has been given a tribute of this magnitude and sustained intensity. Ten concerts over five days featured 47 different works by Carter. Not a single note by anyone else was played. No contrasting works from the standard repertoire. No apologies. Just one formidable Carter piece after another. And guess what? People came. And they cheered.
The generously proportioned ground level of Ozawa Hall remained near-full, night after night, and by midweek, a surreal feeling began to set in, as if, while everyone was sleeping, someone had re-scripted the narrative of high-modernism and suddenly this intensely difficult music had a genuine public. The audience seemed to include a healthy proportion of music students but also a motley assortment of new-music fans and connoisseurs of complexity gathered from near and far. Strangers traded enthusiasms about jagged chamber works; one man announced he had driven five hours to get there. For this one week, Tanglewood became an oasis of challenging art. You almost expected to find the ushers toting copies of "Finnegans Wake."
The festival had been in the works for some two years, directed by James Levine, who regrettably had to miss the entire affair as he recovered from surgery to remove a kidney. A bevy of conductors stepped in to fill his shoes, their ranks headed by festival adviser and longtime Carter champion Oliver Knussen. The performers included some stalwart Carter acolytes such as pianists Charles Rosen and Ursula Oppens, but mostly they were young TMC fellows barely one-fifth Carter's age and yet astonishingly fluent in his musical idiom.
Carter began his career as a composer of neo-classical music of a more populist inclination but, starting in the late 1940s, he painstakingly reinvented himself as a vanguard modernist and a creator of works that combined a ferocious technical complexity with a remarkably vivid if also highly fractured sense of theater. One signature Carter move became the freeing of individual lines within an ensemble or an orchestra, such that a piece could be built from multiple streams of music that were each obeying a different tempo.
The festival surveyed major landmarks from Carter's middle period, including a vivid and glowing performance of the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (with Oppens and Rosen, respectively), and on Wednesday night, there was an altogether blistering reading of the mammoth Concerto for Orchestra from 1969. This ever-shifting work is one of pristine anarchy and violent extremes; it's as if the sound of a giant orchestra has been thoroughly shattered and then recombined from countless tiny pieces. Knussen and the TMC orchestra unleashed all of its primal force and fearful asymmetries without sacrificing any clarity of detailing. They deserved the roaring ovation that followed. And as if drawing strength from the collective musical mood, a massive thunderstorm descended on the Tanglewood grounds during this indoor performance, and the tall windows behind the stage were filled with flashes of white light. At intermission a large clap of thunder was heard and one young concertgoer compared it to Carter's music. He seemed to be only half-joking.
Other festival highlights included a striking survey of Carter's vocal works including his elegant "Tempo e Tempi," with soprano Lucy Shelton; the remarkable Elizabeth Bishop settings titled "A Mirror on Which to Dwell," with soprano Jo Ellen Miller; and the mind-bendingly complex "Syringa" with mezzo Kristen Hoff and bass-baritone Evan Hughes. As several commentators observed, all of Carter's vocal settings take their rhythmic inspiration from the natural cadences of the spoken voice, but the composer fashions for each work its own self-encapsulating world of mood, texture, and color. Most distinctively, in "Syringa," Carter layers his setting of an elusive John Ashbery poem with a simultaneous setting of excerpts from classical Greek literature, sung in their original language, complementing the poem's themes. It's not a piece that reveals its secrets in a single hearing, or two or three, but this performance was as clear and warmly focused as they come.
One relatively new and gorgeous vocal work was "In the Distances of Sleep," a 2006 setting of Wallace Stevens poetry, cogently led on Tuesday by Jeffrey Milarsky and given a knockout performance by Kate Lindsey, a young mezzo-soprano with a very bright future. The third poem, "Re-Statement of Romance," drew from Carter the most tender and beautiful music of the week, with its quiet string lines cradling Lindsey's luminous voice.
This work seems to breathe the distinct air of Carter's most recent "late-late" period, in which he has been writing music of more grace and transparency. Thomas Martin's performance of the Clarinet Concerto brimmed with an almost Mozartean ease and exuberance, and some of the newest works sound, at least on the surface, very distant from Carter's former self. On Sunday night, Stefan Asbury led the world premiere (as well as an encore repeat performance) of "Sound Fields," an abstract study in sonic texture for string orchestra. The piece consists entirely of sustained, dynamically static chords that fluctuate only in density, growing thicker and thinner with a certain restrained sense of poetry. The festival's second world premiere was "Mad Regales," a deft and extremely witty a cappella vocal setting of three poems by Ashbery, impeccably sung by TMC vocal fellows and sensibly led by John Oliver. It was Carter's first a cappella vocal work in almost 70 years.
The five-day festival was capped by an all-Carter program performed Thursday night by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO's assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung courageously filled in for Levine and led a shapely if slightly rough-hewn performance of "Three Illusions"; James Sommerville returned to the Horn Concerto, dispatching it with more freedom and tonal imagination; and Knussen led commanding readings of the "Boston Concerto" and Carter's gigantic 50-minute Symphonia. This was a gruelingly difficult program to pull off, but the time the orchestra has invested in recent years learning Carter's language has clearly paid dividends.
Throughout the week, the chamber works and concertos received some highly virtuosic performances. Top on this list was Oppens's boldly contoured reading of "Night Fantasies" for solo piano. An elite squad of TMC alumni designated as the New Fromm Players also offered electrifying renditions of the Second Quartet and the "Four Lauds" for solo violin, among many other works. Cellist Fred Sherry was the formidable soloist in the Cello Concerto and pianist Nicolas Hodges dispatched the solo part in "Dialogues" with clarity and tonal brilliance. Conductors Ryan Wigglesworth and Erik Nielsen also made valuable contributions.
Overall, Carter's music gathered strength this week from its numbers; something about the sustained and total immersion made the listening experiences deeper and clearer than when one encounters the occasional Carter work at large in the world. That said, it was a shame that a few more of the composer's early works were not represented, and that, when the programming had to be scaled back, it was the "Holiday Overture" of 1944 that was eliminated. Hearing a bit more of the populist, neo-classical Carter would have sketched his journey more fully, and on a more subtle level, would have kept at bay any lingering suspicions that festival programming had been even slightly influenced by 20th-century polemics of musical style.
Carter himself attended most of the concerts, and the defining visual image of the festival was of performers applauding the composer as he applauded them. The dramatic arc of his story, composing through his 90s and living long enough to attend his own centenary festival, surely gave the reception of his music an extra boost this week. But there was also no denying that plenty of works once perceived by many as unplayable or unpalatable, or both, were being given the kind of eye-opening performances that push them toward entering a more mainstream repertory from which they once seemed hopelessly distant. When Carter took his bows from the stage, aided only by a cane, he was beaming.
"These pieces of music," he said in a public interview, "if they spoke English instead of notes, they would be very grateful."
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.