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At Tanglewood, You Can Hear 8 Concerts in 3 Days


LENOX, Mass. — There are really two Tanglewoods here in the bucolic Berkshires. One is the popular summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The other is the less-known Tanglewood Music Center, the orchestra’s prestigious training institute for exceptional student performers and composers.

But during a few densely scheduled days every summer, the Tanglewood Music Center takes center stage to present the Festival of Contemporary Music. This year’s edition, directed for the second consecutive year by the composer and conductor Thomas Adès and spread over five days, was no exception. On a recent visit, I attended both festival events and Boston Symphony programs — a total of eight concerts in three days, an exhilarating immersion in the two Tanglewoods.

Before Saturday night’s Boston Symphony concert at the open-air Shed, the festival presented a program at the smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall performed by students along with members of the New Fromm Players, a contemporary music ensemble comprising recent alumni of the Tanglewood center. Though billed as a “prelude,” it was a substantive 90-minute program with challenging works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Chaya Czernowin and Poul Ruders (whose latest opera, “The Thirteenth Child” recently premiered at Santa Fe Opera).

Mr. Ruders’s String Quartet No. 4 (2012) was especially striking in the incisive performance here. This 30-minute work exemplifies the composer’s postmodern style, juxtaposing gritty harmonies, fiendish outbursts, dancing episodes and radiant lyricism — contrasts so sudden they can seem like non sequiturs.

That evening, in his Boston Symphony debut, the energetic conductor Rafael Payare led the orchestra in a program ending with a clear-textured, vigorous account of Brahms’s First Symphony. He opened with a glittering account of a restless, easygoing piece by a composer from his Venezuelan homeland: Inocente Carreño’s Margariteña, glosa sinfónica (1954). The highlight was Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto featuring the dazzling Nikolai Lugansky, who played the music’s streams of virtuosic passagework as if every note mattered.

A busy Sunday began at 10 a.m. with an ambitious contemporary music program that drew a sizable, and intrepid, audience to Ozawa Hall. Andrew Hamilton’s “music for people who like art” used obsessively repeated phrases (“art is art” is repeated 81 times) from “25 Lines of Words on Art Statement” by Ad Reinhardt, sung by the soprano Anna Elder — backed by a large, percussion-heavy ensemble conducted by Jack Sheen. The plucky music is driven by pummeling, often blasting bursts of clipped phrases. The affecting piece in the concert was Nathan Shields’s “Commedia,” receiving its American premiere. Scored for a chamber orchestra, this is an alternately kinetic and reflective work in the spirit of composers, like Schumann and Stravinsky, who evoked commedia dell’arte in their music.

That afternoon, Mr. Adès led the Boston Symphony in a program that opened with Ives’s “Three Places in New England” and included two Beethoven staples. The superb Inon Barnatan was the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, capturing both the majestic and mercurial elements of this great work. Then Mr. Adès led a penetrating account of the “Pastoral” Symphony, conducted with the insights of a fellow composer calling fresh attention to inner details and overarching structure.

Later, as part of the festival’s Silent Film Project, there were screenings of scenes from classics by Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang and others, with students playing scores composed (in less than two weeks!) by a roster of composers from the Tanglewood center. Several took counterintuitive approaches, writing music that avoided the predictable and genuinely sounded contemporary. The event took place in the all-purpose Studio E of the impressive new Linde Center for Music and Learning at Tanglewood, a facility that will specialize in informative public events like this one.

Then, at the Shed that evening — for my fourth concert that day — Yo-Yo Ma played Bach’s six solo cello suites, part of his two-year project to play the complete suites 36 times across six continents. Through related “days of action,” Mr. Ma is trying to bring people together to address social issues and “think differently about the role of culture in society,” as he describes.

Bach surely imagined that these intimate suites would be performed, if at all, in small, homey spaces. Mr. Ma, using subtle amplification within the Shed as well as the routine sound system for listeners on the surrounding lawn, performed the works for a combined audience of 12,766, according to Tanglewood officials.

Yet he drew listeners in and made the vast space feel intimate. His performance, it goes without saying, was magnificent. Some passages were played with hushed pianissimos and uncommon delicacy; livelier dance movements truly jostled along. Speaking to the audience, Mr. Ma paid tribute to those in attendance who had come together to devote collective attention to Bach’s profound suites, which he played over two hours without an intermission. For an encore, he was joined by his friend James Taylor for a rendition of “Sweet Baby James” — the only “suite,” Mr. Taylor quipped, that he would ever compose.

A prelude concert on Monday at Ozawa Hall, featuring mostly piano pieces, was dedicated to the composer Oliver Knussen, who died last year at 66. As the director of contemporary music activities at the Tanglewood Music Center from 1986 to 1993, Mr. Knussen conducted and organized dozens of programs like these. His distinctive piano works, including the “Prayer Bell Sketch” (played sensitively by Tomoki Park), and the impetuous 12 Variations (played arrestingly by Christine Wu), were among the highlights.

The festival ended at Ozawa Hall with the Tanglewood Music Center’s orchestra in a program of audacious works, beginning with Gerald Barry’s “Canada,” a puckish piece that appropriates text from the prisoners’ chorus of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” to create a riotous mélange of sputtered words, high-pitched shouted singing and coruscating blasts from the orchestra. The tenor Charles Blandy was the fearless soloist; Nathan Aspinall conducted. Killian Farrell led a textured account of Mr. Knussen’s “Whitman Settings,” which featured two fine sopranos (Elizabeth Polese and Margaret Tigue) sharing the solo part.

It was fitting that the festival ended with Mr. Adès leading his “Asyla,” a rambunctious, wildly colorful piece that had its acclaimed premiere in 1997 — when Mr. Adès was only 26, not much older than the average age of the players in this summer’s Tanglewood center orchestra.


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