Tag: Tanglewood

Tanglewood: Sessions and Lessons on Successful Composition

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

It is essential that the company be a big one
It should be at least big enough
So that nobody knows exactly
What anyone else is doing

—Frank Loesser, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Monday of last week I was at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, sitting in front of a chatty old lady. (The first rule of Tanglewood: you will always be sitting in front of a chatty old lady.) This was the final concert of the Festival of Contemporary Music (which I reviewed for the Boston Globe), and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and conductor Stefan Asbury kicked off the program with an old-school favorite of mine: Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra.

It was not a favorite of the lady behind me. This, in and of itself, is not that surprising. It was a great performance, but Sessions is an acquired taste (one that I am happy to have acquired). But it was the way she talked about it that caught my ear. “It’s not successful,” she kept saying, all through the changeover to the next piece. “It’s not a successful piece of music.”

I’ve probably heard (and used) a similar construction dozens of times, but she was so fixed on that terminology that it just started to sound weirder and weirder. It wasn’t successful. It’s an unsuccessful piece.
What does that even mean?


It was pretty clear what it meant in this specific case. She didn’t like it. She just wanted a more objective-sounding way of saying that. For all the criticism of the avant-garde modernist habit of deflecting personal responsibility by reference to some realm of impersonal, the-music-goes-where-it-has-to-go autonomy—here’s a handy example—it’s worth noting that the avant-garde’s discontents do the exact same thing. It’s the style that’s bankrupt; it’s the music that’s unsuccessful. (It’s not me; it’s you.)
So: is this piece successful? From a professional standpoint, Sessions’s Concerto was, in fact, a huge success. It was commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It got great reviews. The BSO recorded it, and the recording got great reviews. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But those are, perhaps, merely career-based externalities, and the buzzwordiness of that phrase is some indication that inherent musical quality is not its inevitable companion. These are the sort of markers that are easiest to dismiss (up to a point: everybody hates the Pulitzer Prize until one of their favorite composers wins the thing).

I think (I hope) I’ve been a little more specific with “successful” and “unsuccessful” when writing or talking about music, measuring it against some given goal: either a composer’s-note mission statement for the piece, or some sort of dramatic necessity, or some trajectory that the music seems to be implying so strongly that to abandon it would be perverse. But a lot of times, I am left in the dark as to those goals. When it comes to, say, a major work by an 85-year-old Roger Sessions, I tend to assume that the composer knew what he was doing, that what we’re hearing is what he intended us to hear. Not being exactly what one wants to hear seems like a pretty thin rationale for judging whether a piece of music succeeds or doesn’t.

The consensus of the group behind me seemed to be that the Concerto wasn’t flashy enough, that it didn’t justify its massive ensemble and its title with sufficient musical fireworks. To be fair, Sessions doesn’t have the generous glitter of that other BSO commission, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra—if that’s your benchmark, then the piece is going to seem unsuccessful. The question—an old one—is whether or not the listener has some responsibility to try and meet the music on its own terms.
My favorite part of the Sessions Concerto is about a third of the way through (starting at measure 126, if you’re the type to have a score lying around). The winds start to melt away, a couple of the horns fizz up their section with a few measures of stopped notes, and then a Largo section begins with about 45 seconds of nothing but the brass softly winding around each other then suddenly erupting into a brief flame. It’s like musical lava. I could pat myself on the back for enjoying what Sessions is doing at this moment, for getting it, but that’s false, too—the piece isn’t successful just because it’s unwittingly pandering to what I like any more than it’s unsuccessful for not pandering to someone else’s preferences. Still, I think there’s something valuable in getting out of your own way as a listener. I take the Concerto’s Gordon-Willis-photographs-the-Second-Viennese-School sound as something Sessions intended, and find that there’s a lot of beauty in that sound.

While I was out at Tanglewood, I gave a lecture to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute students about their following-weekend orchestra concert, which included Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. While doing research for the talk, I ran across Rimsky-Korsakov’s wonderfully dry reaction (as reported by Stravinsky) to hearing Sibelius’s Second Symphony for the first time: “Well, I suppose that is also possible.” I decided to make it my mantra for the Festival, a little amulet of equanimity—the music might be good, it might be bad, but before anything, it is what it is, independent of what I wish it was. I still didn’t like every piece on the Festival. But I probably enjoyed the possibilities more than I might have otherwise.


Not long ago, I had a dream, part of which involved a fictional piece of music. (Another part involved Monty Python’s Flying Circus being filmed in northern New England, thanks, somehow, to an unsettled border dispute with Canada. Have at it, Jungians.) I don’t remember the (also fictional) composer or title, but I do remember that a recording and score of the piece came packaged with a very Jack Kirby-ish comic book, all far-out, cosmic pop mythology. The music itself was electronic, analog-synthesized nasality and ping, garnished with fashionable atonal and aleatoric features, but on a foundation that had the comfortable structure of a Hollywood soundtrack. The final section of the piece was a setting of a passage from some medieval, Vico-like bit of mysticism, the portentous narration filtered through some early version of a vocoder.

It was, in other words, just about the most late-’60s-America artifact one could possibly imagine. And that’s how it was perceived in the dream world, too. Everyone I was hanging out with in the dream—musicians all—knew the piece; it was one of those grad-school cult pieces, not part of the standard repertoire, but common knowledge among current and former composition students, say. In the dream, a lot of my friends were kind of rolling their eyes at the piece, at its cheesiness, its datedness, its lack of restraint. But that was just why I liked it, the fact that it was so over-saturated with its own zeitgeist.

I woke up and wondered how much American history you could map out this way—with pieces from the classical repertoire that were so much of their own time that they never really escaped it, either aesthetically or, in performance-frequency terms, literally. I didn’t get very far, to be honest. But I did realize one thing: any piece that fit these criteria was, by definition, on some level, unsuccessful.
But, as with that dream-world piece, that tends to have a lot to do with why I like them. The two strongest candidates I came up with—Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony for the 1940s and Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days for the 1980s—are both pieces that I love. They’re also both pieces that, from one angle, are flawed and dated. But, from another angle, they’re pieces that bring to the fore ideas and aspects of music that more conventionally successful pieces never do.

Songs from Liquid Days is particularly rich in this regard. For those who might have missed it (still reeling, perhaps, from Boy George’s appearance on The A-Team), Songs from Liquid Days was a 1986 album for which Glass set texts by various pop/art-pop artists (Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson) then recruited a bunch of different pop artists (Janice Pendarvis, longtime Rolling Stones backup Bernard Fowler, Linda Ronstadt, The Roches) to sing the results. If that sounds like a mish-mash, well, it is. And my first reaction to something like “Changing Opinion,” the opening track—both when I first heard it and when I recently pulled the album out again—was that all those different contributions, all those agendas, pulled the piece in too many contrary directions.

Which is exactly what I found most compelling about it the second and third times around. Each of the components—the Wagnerian harmonies, the R&B vocals, the nouvelle vague realism/surrealism of the lyrics—is thrown back on itself by the others, until it’s concentrated and pure. The stylistic essences are amplified by the sheer incompatibility. Even its period-piece-ness is profound, tapping into aspects of the era that tend to get sanded away by the retro-culture industry. (“Liquid Days (Part I),” with The Roches warbling in close harmony, nails the antiseptic nostalgia that saturated the ’80s better than any other piece I can think of.)

Is that what the piece set out to do? Nevertheless, it’s what the piece does. Or (to exorcise that autonomous musical realm) it’s what I think it does. And I think it’s pretty successful at it.


sessions concerto title
A lot of people, I suppose, would call Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra a period piece. I can hear something of that. I hear a particular, post war wing of the new-music establishment. I hear its late-’70s, early-’80s twilight. I hear the pre-World War II Vienna from which Sessions drew so much inspiration. But I also hear the years right around 1990—when I first got to know the piece in college. I listened to a lot of postwar atonal modernism in college. I listened to a lot of everything in college, mainly because I didn’t know a lot of it, and mainly because my musical taste was unformed enough that piling in additional, sometimes contradictory evidentiary material was still easy and fun, like filling a library rather than culling it.

Sessions’s Concerto was commissioned for the BSO’s centennial. He had also been commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary, writing his Third Symphony—a big-canvas culmination of his first explorations of serialist techniques. Cyrus Durgin, then the critic for the Boston Globe, was, it is fair to say, dismayed by Sessions’s Third:

What, then, are we to think? Is this music or not? Time will tell, of course, and all writers about art have been proved wrong at one time or another. But this morning is now, and I will say I do not believe it is music, or if it is, here is music of a curiously masochistic and perverse variety. (“Sessions’ New Third Symphony,” Daily Boston Globe, December 7, 1957)

Give Durgin a little credit—he doesn’t make any pretense of lofty objectivity. This is what he thinks, at this particular time. But deciding whether or not something is a piece of music—that is some prime old-school criticism right there. In a post-tonal, post-serialist, post-Cagean, post-minimalist, post-modern atmosphere, that kind of statement has ceased to be useful, or even meaningful. Child of Tree might not be your cup of tea, but if John Cage, as disciplined a musician as there ever was, hears music in the prick of cactus needles, are you going to tell him he’s wrong? But I think that some people miss that sense of certainty. And I think that’s where a lot of that “successful/unsuccessful” type of critical terminology can start to creep in. I’ll confess: I miss it every once in a while, too.

One’s relationship with music is built up brick by brick, piece by piece, concert by concert, judgment by judgment. I like new music, which probably means that I have a higher tolerance than most for constantly demolishing and renovating that house of taste—which I sometimes think might be more of a sign of immaturity than anything: an 8-year-old’s glee at getting to pick up a sledgehammer and bash in the drywall of my own opinions.

Still, sometimes you just want to sit in your house. I sense this most when I go to a concert when I’m in a bad mood. (This is one consequence of our societal norm of putting concerts in the evening: you can fit in an entire crappy day before the first downbeat.) If I’m there in some professional capacity, that means extra work: talking myself into the possibility of an unexpected epiphany, tasking myself with finding some bit of the music worth praising, obsessively applying Cage’s prescription for boredom (“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen.”) to keep from completely retreating into a daydream. My job is to recognize that I’m in a bad mood and filter it out; to suppose that whatever I’m hearing is, also, possible.

And then, often times, the concert filters it out for me, and I find that my bad mood has dissipated. How do I know? I find that I’m suddenly more alert. I’m more expectant. I’m more in the present. In short: I’m ready to be proven wrong. And I can’t wait.

From the Shed to the Stars: Reflections on the Boston University Tanglewood Institute

I acquired my first orchestral scores in the Tanglewood gift shop, at the age of seventeen. A student at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, I purchased the last copy of the Brahms symphonies the day before the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched a Brahms cycle under James Levine at Tanglewood’s legendary Koussevitsky Shed. A geek-cellist friend, alarmed at the prospect of listening without a score, offered me $200 for it; I declined. This was a new experience, a worth attached to music that I had not encountered before.

Many a college essay, I’m sure, has included a variation on a similar anecdote: “Gazing up at the stars while listening to [insert canonic symphony here], I realized that music was my true calling.”

Mine certainly did. NewMusicBox readers can probably recall similarly seminal, early memories of summer music festivals in high school or college, experiences of communing with nature and other young musicians that helped drive them to be the composers or performers they are today. But beyond the pat clichés of staring at the stars while listening to Brahms—for me at least—there was something more powerful at work: an expansion of musical consciousness and igniting of an intellectual curiosity that made me want to study music for the rest of my life.

I attended BUTI—affectionately known as “booty”—in the summers of 2005 and 2006; I played saxophone in the wind ensemble, a four-week program that ran alongside similar programs for high school-age composers, vocalists, pianists, and orchestral musicians. Those eight weeks are powerfully etched into my memory.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

Today, that program is in a certain amount of danger, and thus this article; I write less from a “Save Our Classical Music Institution” perspective but rather out of an obligation that is both personal and historic. The stories of young musicians at BUTI are stories that are crucial to the narrative of music in the past half-century. Cutting BUTI or relocating it from its current campus would be a sad erasure of a rich legacy that stretches back forty-five years and encompasses the early careers of many prominent musicians.

Earlier this month, the Berkshire Eagle reported a few of the issues at hand with the future of the BUTI program, which is run by Boston University (unlike the Tanglewood Music Center fellows program, which is facilitated by Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony). BU is currently reviewing their financial stake in the program and its future—both as part of the larger university and as directly connected to Tanglewood itself.

Sam Solomon—a percussionist who participated in BUTI in high school and today teaches at BU and BUTI—has recently begun to speak out publicly about the issues in order to draw attention to the dangers of altering the program. I communicated with Phyllis Hoffman—a professor of voice at BU and the executive and artistic director of BUTI—who let me know that the BUTI and BU administration are working closely together to offset the budget problems; she wrote to me that “there is a strong recognition of the excellence and importance of BUTI.”

That said, the current facilities—located on the beautiful West Campus, within walking distance of Tanglewood’s main grounds—are in need of overhaul and can’t currently accommodate all of the programs that BUTI offers. Fortunately, the Eagle recently confirmed that BUTI will definitely continue next summer. But serious investment is required, and BU is reportedly considering moving the program from Lenox to Boston.

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

That would be a huge mistake. In her study The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape, Denise von Glahn writes of the particularly American relationship between music and place, the “unique way in which music of the cultivated tradition expresses, defines, and celebrates place.” Tanglewood has already been similarly inscribed into American musical history. Nico Muhly, a BUTI alum, has written It Remains To Be Seen, a lovely, loving orchestral work that pays tribute to his wistful nighttime walk from the Tanglewood main grounds back to West Campus following a concert. Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul was inspired by the composer’s memories of hearing the Boston Symphony play outdoors when he was a Tanglewood fellow (though not in BUTI). The Tanglewood experience has become part of this grand American tradition of tonalizing space, a place-based muse.

I asked several prominent alums of BUTI to help paint a broader picture of what BUTI, the program and the place, meant for them, and how their early experiences as high school fellows made them the musicians they are today.
Nico Muhly, composer

It was just amazing…For me the West Street campus is just so romantic and lovely, and site specific, and being that close to the grounds is amazing, and walking to the grounds is amazing….There’s nowhere else like that.

It’s that sense of continuity. For instance, one of my other friends I met that first summer, Dan Bauch, went on to the Tanglewood Music Center and went on to be a timpanist in the BSO. You can hear the same music by someone who, when you were a sixteen-year-old, you sat on the lawn and listened to The Firebird with; [he’s now] playing it with that orchestra 15 years later—it’s such a magical thing.

One of the things that people talk about, even just on the BSO side of it, is that it’s not just great music-making—it’s the whole culture of being there and the whole intergenerational chilled-ness. It’s so important for young musicians to see that. It connects to people, but it also connects to the idea of musical community.

This last summer I volunteered for a week and did master classes and taught lessons. I did the same thing two years ago. I go up as much as I can.  If I can volunteer at BUTI, it literally makes my summer. For me it’s not a summer unless you go to Tanglewood, and I’ve done crazy shit, like a couple years ago I flew back from, like, Singapore or something just to go. It’s not just fun, I think it’s vital

Molly Yeh, percussionist and food blogger

An earth shattering Mahler 5, a terrifying but triumphant Copland 3…While my love for music led me to BUTI, it was my time at BUTI that made me love the music world and desperately want to be a part of it. It was there where I met many of my very best friends, where I learned how to change a timpani head and work with composers on new works, and where I got to know Tanglewood as one of my most favorite places on earth. My BUTI summers were the first flaps of the butterfly’s wings in my career as a percussionist.

My bonds with my peers at BUTI, both professional and personal, still hold tight today, however it is also important to mention that my interactions with the Tanglewood Music Center percussionists also had a profoundly enriching effect. To this day, I consider a few of them to be my most valuable mentors. With their encouragement and support, I had extra confidence in my college auditions, and I’ve since had the opportunity to play with them in orchestras around the world. Having the TMC percussionists as role models during my years at BUTI was a unique and unforgettable experience that I would not have gotten at any other music camp.

Forgive me for being dramatic, but when I’m old and crusty and dying, the montage of my adult life will open with Mahler’s Adagietto playing to a memory where I’m dancing with my three best friends, barefoot on the Tanglewood grounds. Laughing, frolicking…and then taceting in tears until the next movement. Without a doubt, these were some of the happiest moments of my life.

Sam Solomon, percussionist and faculty member at BU and BUTI

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of BUTI for 13 years: three as a student, and now ten as a faculty member. In and of itself, it is a top-notch program with top-notch faculty, but what sets it apart from other great summer festivals is the location. The students are provided an unparalleled education on top of that offered by the Institute because of their access to Tanglewood concerts, rehearsals, and masterclasses, as well as the community of musicians that spend their summers there. All of the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Music Center, and visiting artist concerts expose these young minds to dozens of conductors, composers, and performers.

For me it was revelatory. I was a BUTI student nearly 20 years ago, and every musical experience I have had since is filtered through the education I received there. I am still in close contact with many of the students that were with me those summers, all of whom are at the top of their fields, playing in, composing for, soloing with, or conducting major orchestras, touring with successful chamber ensembles, teaching at top-tier music schools, and even in high-level music administration positions.

Nadia Sirota, violist and daughter of Robert Sirota, who taught composition at BUTI (Nadia did not herself attend the program)

Hanging around BUTI and Tanglewood laid the single most-impactiful groundwork for my becoming a musician. Without a doubt. There was a true respect for music-making that pervaded the place, not music-making as industry but as art. There was a joy to the program. I remember all of my dad’s little composition students hanging out at our house and having barbecues. Composers, performers, and audience members are all thrown together in this little town. Everything feels vital. Also, musicians that are 16 years old get to consort with musicians who are 23 and musicians who are 63. The whole musical ecosystem is temporarily housed in one zone. It’s like a terrarium.

Judd Greenstein, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records

Having friends who, like me, knew they were composers, that they had already discovered their passion and were pursuing it at a high level, was extremely encouraging and gave me a sense of being part of a supportive community even before we all wound up in New York together, years later. The other important experience was getting to interact with really great older composers. That’s where I first met David Lang, and Sofia Gubaidulina visited, which was incredible, even in translation. I remember her talking about silence. It was one of the most profoundly important musical education experiences of my life, as was David’s talk. Especially so because I was with Nico [Muhly] and we could talk all day about what they said, as teenagers, when you really are learning so much.

It’s really my relationship with Nico that has meant the most to me. When you have a good friend in a challenging creative field who you’ve known for a long time, whom you meet at such a young age, it gives you a lot of confidence. Like, whatever else people may say, I know that we get each other and what we’re trying to do. I recently found some letters that we sent to each other where I was basically complaining about all the things that I wound up trying to address in the world of music, later on, with NOW Ensemble and New Amsterdam and Ecstatic, and which I’m still trying to address. Having friends with whom you can share those thoughts, and who agree, and where you’re supporting each other, is invaluable. Now I have many of those friends, of course, but Nico was the first, and BUTI is the avenue that made it happen.

Logan K. Young, editor-in-chief, Classicalite

Growing up in a small Southern town, attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute was my first real, extended exposure to a world-class symphony orchestra, with every attendant benefit therein. I was 18 years old, freshly graduated from high school with an even fresher beard. Sure, I had been to Spoleto. I had studied trumpet at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, as well as the Brevard Music Center, and I had just finished a week at the Conductors Institute of South Carolina. But BUTI truly was a different experience in an altogether different land. (I never will forget the 24-hour-plus Greyhound ride from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Lenox, Massachusetts!) I had no formal training in composition beforehand, but as soon as I got off that bus, I was thrust into hard lessons with Richard Cornell and Julian Wachner, intense classes with Steve Mackey and the late Lukas Foss. Of course, the Festival of Contemporary Music was its own great teacher, too. If I’d never heard Copland or Bernstein performed live by anything other than a per-service orchestra, I certainly had never heard any Leon Kirchner in person, much less a thing like Satie’s Socrate. And when I bought a double-CD of Tod Machover’s Valis at the gift shop on the grounds of Tanglewood proper, well, it’s no hyperbole to say that my life was changed forever. Come college, I would go on to summer at places like Banglewood and, stranger still, the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, but none of those would have been possible were it not for the invaluable training in the most solid fundamentals which I received at BUTI. Granted, I write more about new music now, but again, if BUTI didn’t exist back then, my life would sound a lot more dull. I’m a better musician, writer, and overall person for having taken that Greyhound to Lenox; I sincerely hope the brass don’t shut the place down.

Jeffrey Beecher, principal bass, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and member of The Silk Road Ensemble

I attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute as a 14-year-old in 1997.   While I had some experience at other music programs under my belt, I remember feeling a little scared when I arrived in Lenox, not knowing what I was in store for.  From the moment I arrived at BUTI, I knew I had found a very special place.  I was immediately struck by the impressive level of talent and dedication coming from the other students.
I was inspired to meet young musicians who not only excelled at their instruments, but passionately debated the best recordings of Mahler symphonies, were floored to rehearse and perform the great orchestral masterworks (Nielsen 4!!), and who eagerly attended the Boston Symphony’s Shed concerts like rock shows.

All of this was greatly influenced by the location on the Boston University campus.   To be that close to the Tanglewood grounds afforded me unparalleled access to the pros.  It also inspired the dream of a long journey: with hard work, I might one day be a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.   And with even more hard work, I might get the chance to play in a professional orchestra?!

I am extremely grateful to say that I am living that 14-year-old’s dream—I perform as professional musician in a phenomenal orchestra and a world music ensemble.  As a teacher, I get to pass on the traditions and generosity of spirit I learned at BUTI to today’s aspiring young musicians.

In August 2010, my relationship to BUTI came full circle when I performed with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma at the Tanglewood Shed.  Feeling nostalgic, I gave a quick shout-out to the BUTI students in attendance.  As a youthful cheer exploded from beyond stage left, I was thrilled to observe that the vitality and passion of those students was just as impressive as it had been to me thirteen years earlier.

Missy Mazzoli, composer

It was vital to me to see as much music as possible.  I saw two or three concerts a day, plus rehearsals.  I remember seeing Peter Serkin in a rehearsal with the BSO, Anonymous Four, Van Cliburn, and John Williams conducting the premiere of a new orchestral work, among many others.  I was only seventeen but managed to meet Mauricio Kagel, Elliott Carter, Joan Tower, Bright Sheng, John Harbison, and Aaron Kernis that summer as well.  These were among the first living composers I met, believe it or not.

The location near the Tanglewood campus is absolutely essential to the power of the program.  Many of the best experiences I mentioned had to do with the fact that for the first time in my life I felt that I was being treated as a professional.  The ability to walk on the same grounds as the BSO and the chance to meet the top contemporary composers made me feel that I was on my way to having a life as a musician.  For a girl from small-town Pennsylvania, this was absolutely essential to my feeling that I could go on as a composer.

Timothy Andres, composer

I didn’t know a lot of kids my age who were interested in the same things I was. That first summer at BUTI was the first time I could meet other 14-year-olds who were obsessed with Ravel; no longer a social disease, my obsession made me popular. It wasn’t an education so much as a combination of osmosis and moral support. It confirmed my desperate need to be part of this thing—to be a musician was a real possibility, and if not exactly attainable, at least conceivable. And it was the beginning of my attachment to a place that would continue through college (when I returned for the Tanglewood Music Center) and my professional career (we recorded Home Stretch in Ozawa Hall).
It’s an integral part of Tanglewood and the larger music world, and its survival is vitally important to young musicians.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Molly Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

I myself have many memories of great performances, but perhaps more importantly, many memories of the value that my peers placed on those performances; thus, the $200 offered for that Brahms score! That value was in part a kind of cultural cold war that I engaged in with my fellow high schoolers, a battle over knowledge of the canon. I was a classical saxophonist with a very light schooling in the orchestral rep, and phrases like “Bruckner Four” and “the Meistersinger Prelude,” tossed off with such ease by other musicians (well, let’s be honest, brass players) endowed me with a peculiar kind of inferiority complex.
I tried to catch up, learning as much as I could as fast as I could. Following my first BUTI summer in 2005, I spent my senior year of high school fastidiously reading Wikipedia pages and biographies of the great composers. I returned in 2006 with the lingo, knowledge, and constant quest for new information about music that undergirds my research today. At age seventeen, it felt very good to know who Brahms was and why it was so special to hear Levine lead a full cycle of his symphonies. (New music, I should say, remained a bafflingly unknown element; I wish I had taken advantage of the offerings at the contemporary festival. And to this day, I regret most of all opting out of hearing the famous performance of Histoire du Soldat narrated by Babbitt, Carter, and Harbison.)

I could list the many concerts that inspired and overwhelmed me. But it was the overall sense of the environment and the coming-together of several generations of musicians—from high schoolers to college-age Tanglewood Music Center players to tenured members of the Boston Symphony—in a single place that was unique. With immense pride, I watched close friends rise through the ranks each summer, ascending the professional ladder amid the pines. A percussionist, Kyle Brightwell, was an early star in my first BUTI summer. By the next summer, he was already subbing with the TMC orchestra. This past August, I visited Tanglewood and saw Kyle pound away at the big drum in The Rite of Spring, as a tenured member of the Boston Symphony’s percussion section.

That sense of lineage, and the opportunity to forge an early relationship with musicians that will be maintained over the course of a lifetime, cannot be underestimated. Sitting outside the Shed and listening to Brahms, I can gaze up at those same stars today—as can Muhly, Andres, Mazzoli, Beecher, Young, Sirota, Yeh, and Solomon—and imagine a musical past and a continuity extending into a bright future.

New England’s Prospect: The Manicured Lawns (Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music)

There is no good reason for Tanglewood to be where it is, apart from the late, latent imprint of Gilded Age fortunes, the leftover patronage that lured first Henry Hadley then Serge Koussevitzky to the Berkshires in the 1930s. This season’s Tanglewood anniversary—lately, every year seems to bring one—is the 75th of the Music Shed, erected in 1938 as a riposte to nature: conceived, funded, designed, and built in a spasm of pique over an epic rainstorm the previous season. The place channels history at every turn, but it is not so much the history of the land it sits on, or the century’s worth of people who passed through it on its way to its current incarnation. It is the history of itself. The past that Tanglewood leverages is its own. It is a recursive monument.
I mention this as a possible explanation for why, even after more than four decades, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music still seems to be making itself up as it goes along. In one sense, it should—the music keeps changing, so the FCM should, too. But the goal seems to change from year to year. Is it a survey, a snapshot of the time? An in-depth exploration of particular personalities? A stake-in-the-ground vision of the future? A chance to adjust the ledger of the past? An educational exercise? All of the above?

Under the direction of pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, this year’s festival—Thursday to Monday, August 8-12—glanced off several of those possibilities without settling on any one. The festival-as-portrait was divided up three ways—and across two continents—between Elliott Carter (in memoriam), Marco Stroppa, and Helmut Lachenmann. The festival-as-rewind centered around a concert that sought to bring some venerable American classical counterculture into the Tanglewood fold. The festival-of-the-moment brought the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, presented in concert on Monday night.
At the same time, the FCM felt weirdly hemmed in. A limited, all-male, all-white roster of composers was hardly an adventurous template. But the festival also, from piece to piece, seemed to be changing its mind on what exactly it wanted to be.


Thursday’s concerts (which I covered for the Boston Globe) had included Instances, Carter’s second-to-last work; Friday’s opened with his last, Epigrams, performed by violinist Sarah Silver and cellist Michael Dahlberg (both members of the New Fromm Players) and Aimard at the piano. Like Instances, the piece is aphoristic, mercurial in the alchemical sense, its prima materia seeming to encompass all manner of metals, soft and hard, dark and bright. Also like Instances, it seems to play with the idea of late-period music: efficiently brief and often elegiac—some of the string writing in Epigrams is as lyrical as anything Carter ever wrote, going all the way back to his neo-classic Americana—but constantly surrounded by sharp, disjunct, even fierce commentary and contrast.

Lachenmann’s portfolio—introduced on Thursday with “…zwei Gefühle…,” a quite thorough deconstruction of texts by Leonardo da Vinci—continued on Friday with his Third String Quartet, Grido (beneficiary of a phenomenal performance by the JACK Quartet). As is Lachenmann’s wont, Grido is a canvas of noise: bowing on the bridge, bowing behind the bridge, bowing the tailpiece, bowing the tuning pegs, dragging the bow up and down the strings like a howl of wind, with occasional incursions of denatured pitch. Grido also shares with “…zwei Gefühle…” a seeming multitude of endings, the music coming to a halt only to start up again, on its way to another (temporary) halt. It gives Lachenmann’s music a kind of eschatological heaviness, an enervating existential persistence built into the music’s structure.

The Tanglewood Music Center performed the U.S. premiere of Marco Stroppa's Let Me Sing Into Your Ear on Thursday night with amplified basset horn player Michele Marielli. Photo by Hilary Scott.

The Tanglewood Music Center performed the U.S. premiere of Marco Stroppa’s Let Me Sing Into Your Ear on Thursday night with amplified basset horn player Michele Marielli.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Let Me Sing Into Your Ear, Stroppa’s electrified basset horn concerto performed on Thursday night, proved a divertimento next to Friday’s Traietorria, for piano and computerized sound. Stroppa, a three-decade veteran of electronic composition, has a style that falls somewhere between music and sound art; Traietorria, finished in 1989 but only making it to the United States now, is a catalog and a summation, a 45-minute marathon of acoustic/digital interaction that is both strikingly advanced, considering its ‘80s vintage, but also technologically limited in a way that—compared with 2010’s Let Me Sing Into Your Ear—seemed to have demanded a more deliberate and conscientious curation of its resources. The piano writing is of a fascinating virtuosity: Gaspard de la Nuit, maybe, or the Three Pieces from Petrouchka, crushed and compressed into dense recycled fury. Traietorria is vast and uncompromising, and a lot of the audience was squirming by the end. But I loved it. True, I love big, obsessive manifesti. But I also loved the opportunity to hear it. Aimard clearly wanted to bring the piece here, and was clearly using the FCM as the chance to do it. Is that enough reason for the festival itself? Traietorria made the case for a resounding maybe.


In past years, something like Traietorria—or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the anchor of the Sunday morning concert—probably would have been a concert unto itself: a prelude to one of the full-length festival concerts, or a late-night happening in the old Tanglewood Theatre. The FCM, when I first started going, ran from Wednesday through Sunday night. Now it runs Thursday through Monday. Given the immoveable object that is the BSO schedule—Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, now also an open rehearsal on Saturday morning—that one-day shift has both limited the FCM’s offerings and increasingly bumped its concerts up against the Boston Symphony Orchestra itself.

Saturday’s concert, for instance, was presented as the 6:00 p.m. prelude to the 8:30 p.m. BSO concert, which meant a visiting contingent of BSO patrons shifting and grumbling their way through what actually was one of the more entertaining programs of the week. Aimard played a sampler of Carter’s post-Night Fantasies solo piano music (Retrouvailles, Tri-Tribute, and 90+), his nervous, crystalline touch ideal for the music’s hyper-intelligent, kitten-on-the-keys style. Stroppa’s Ossia: Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone (an homage to Joseph Brodsky) was another assemblage of effects, this time for piano trio (violinist Matthew Leslie Santana, cellist Louise Grevin, and pianist Katherine Dowling), but with the visual and aural diversion of a different stage placement for each movement. Where Stroppa went delicate, Lachenmann, on this concert, went slapstick: GOT LOST, in a performance of unfailing deadpan mastery by pianist Stephen Drury and soprano Elizabeth Keusch, deconstructed the idea of art song, its own text, and the conventions of performance into a monument of weighty goofiness. Like the rest of Lachenmann’s works, it is deliberately drawn out, though here the lengthy disintegration is played as a bleak, I’m-not-dead-yet joke.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs piano works by Elliott Carter. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs piano works by Elliott Carter.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

The 8:30 p.m. concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed included the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s annual nod at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music: Sound Fields, Elliott Carter’s brief exercise in string-orchestra klangfarbenharmonie that was premiered at the 2008 FCM. Four minutes of soft chords is, on paper, about as perfunctory a contribution to the festival as the BSO could make, but they did a lovely job with it, conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi energetically cueing the structural accents beneath the music’s placid surface. The audience? At least where I was, the audience was unusually terrible, coughing throughout. I finally made peace with it by imagining it as an impromptu Lachenmann jest: a memento mori of audible ill-health, paying tribute to Carter by acknowledging that no one in the audience was likely to live as long as he did.


The three middle FCM concerts were marked by a comparative absence of Tanglewood Music Center Fellows. The New Fromm Players are TMC alumni, a troupe of contemporary specialists specially hired for each summer season, and they shared the stage with a stream of guests: Aimard, the JACK Quartet, Drury, and Keusch. The student fellows filled out the more orchestral-sized ensembles on Thursday’s concert (and the Reich). But Grevin, the cellist in Stroppa’s trio, was the only fellow on these chamber concerts—that is, until a last-minute substitution let a quartet of fellows (Matthew Vera, Thomas Hofmann, Adrienne Hochman, and Francesca McNeeley) open Sunday morning’s concert with an exhilarating performance of György Ligeti’s 1954 String Quartet No. 1, replacing the previously scheduled Monument—Selbstporträt—Bewegung (that was to have been performed by Dowling and Nicolas Namoradze, both New Fromm Players).

Having Ligeti’s early quartet rather than his later, puckish salute to minimalism, somewhat unraveled the programming thread of the concert, which, on paper, was to lead up to the Reich 18. The addition of more Stroppa, too, was a bit of a detour: BSO cellist Mickey Katz (a former New Fromm Player himself) played Stroppa’s Ay, There’s the Rub, a slow formal morph between pitch-based and noise-based extended techniques. (Katz followed it with an encore, another memorial, one of Henri Dutilleux’s 3 Strophes sur le nom de Sacher that did much the same as Stroppa’s piece, but with a more deft accent.) The ceremony proper started with a dashing rendition—by Dowling and Namoradze—of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies Nos. 5 and 6 (in a transcription by Thomas Adès), then, after intermission, concluded with Music for 18 Musicians. If the performance was clean but a little square—more downbeat than backbeat—the familiar machinery made Ozawa Hall ring.


By the time everyone reassembled on Monday night for Written on Skin, it felt like yet another festival. Benjamin’s opera was having its American premiere, and the anticipation was high. Premiered in 2012, Written on Skin is fugitive in a way that echoes the FCM itself, constantly shifting its own identity. The plot is medieval: a love triangle between a severe Protector (baritone Evan Hughes), his wife Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer), and the Boy (countertenor Augustine Mercante), hired by the Protector to produce a lavish, expensive illuminated book. A pair of angels (mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil and tenor Isaiah Bell) offer commentary and, in the guise of Agnés’s sister and brother-in-law, a brittle mirror to the Protector and Agnés. And to us: Martin Crimp’s libretto freely drops in anachronistic reference to contemporary consumerism, class division, and religious fanaticism. The characters alternate between proclaiming their own symbolic status and narrating their own stage action.

Augustine Mercante, Evan Hughes, Lauren Snouffer and conductor George Benjamin performing Written on Skin in Ozawa Hall 8.12.13.Photo by Hilary Scott.

Augustine Mercante, Evan Hughes, Lauren Snouffer, and conductor George Benjamin performing Written on Skin in Ozawa Hall.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

None of this should work; it all does, spectacularly. The orchestra (conducted by Benjamin) seethes and burns like molten steel; the vocal lines stutter and soar, forever off-balance but ready to take flight at a moment’s rage; the climax of the opera—the Protector kills the Boy, serves his heart to his wife, who then commits suicide in joyful spite—shifts from lurid to magical with breathtaking dexterity. After the rest of the festival’s cross-purposes, even in its more rewarding moments, to bring this piece across the Atlantic felt like a real coup. And the performance—mostly TMC Fellows, only Hughes and a few extra instrumentalists joining as guests—had fierce grandeur. More than that, though, the opera’s cross-referenced multiplicity—the way it combined the distance of legend with the immediacy of reinvention, the precise description of its action with its euphoric evocation, the proclamation of archetype with individual specificity—offered a possible mission statement for the FCM as a whole: a glittering interchange, ever-shifting, looking forward and looking back, equal parts ritual and experiment, all held together by sheer musical brio.

The self-conjured nature of Tanglewood extends to the FCM; it means, for one thing, that no one will ever be happy with what it is, because it seems like it could be whatever you want it to be. I can’t think of another new music festival that people have quibbled and argued about for so long, but that, too, is a kind of heritage: not many new music festivals are so worth the quibbles and arguments. Give the FCM credit: it leaves you wanting more—more concerts; more American innovations, more European innovations, and more input from the wide world beyond that axis; more musicians sinking their teeth into the repertoire; more sheer when-else-will-we-ever-do-this impractical madness. It’s a tall order. But if you can make your own history, why not shoot for the moon?

TMC Fellows perform "Music for 18 Musicians" by Steve Reich as part of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood on 8.11.13. Photo by HIlary Scott.

TMC Fellows perform Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich as part of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood.
Photo by Hilary Scott.