Where's the wow?
In this week's Boston Phoenix, Lloyd Schwartz has the second and longer installment of his two-part review of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM). I didn't attend any of the events — that's what a family and full-time job will do for you — but thanks to Schwartz's unsurpassed skills as a reviewer, I think I got a pretty good idea of what transpired. Besides, no amount of distance will prevent me from reviewing the programming of the concerts, especially since almost all of the music is either known to me or available for listening. And, as I perused the reviews, a few things struck me about the composers and works included on the FCM.
For one thing, out of fifteen composers represented on the FCM's five concerts, only three are under fifty years of age. Many are much older, and a couple, Niccolò Castiglioni and Charles Ives, are deceased. Now, there's nothing wrong with being over fifty or deceased. I'm over fifty myself, and plan to stay that way until I too am deceased. But you know, these kids today are composing some pretty cool music, if you give them a listen. And they may enliven a festival that, under the direction of British composer-conductor Oliver Knussen, did rather cleave to the verities of mainstream late 20th-century composing styles. There was nary a note of minimalist, post-modern, "downtown" or other newer, edgier sounds to be heard. In other words, nothing with a beat. Even the three youngsters, Brits Helen Grime and Luke Bedford and American Sean Shepherd, compose in styles that owe little to the here-and-now. Grime, for instance, was represented by "Seven Pierrot Miniatures," scored for the combination of instruments used by Arnold Schoenberg in his 100-year old modernist masterpiece "Pierrot Lunaire" (more about this here). In his "These Particular Circumstances," Shepherd quotes Holst and Ravel (and perhaps others I don't spot), evokes Pierre Boulez among others, and while skilled, offers little that's fresh or personal to the orchestral medium. Bedford's "Or voit tout en aventure," which sets Medieval French and Italian texts for solo soprano and sixteen players, is more compelling and original, though it could have been premiered 25 years ago without raising an eyebrow.
Again, there's nothing wrong with a festival that offers consistent, focused programming; indeed, that's usually a good thing. Besides, those who need a fix of classical po-mo should have attended "Banglewood," as Mass MoCA's "Bang on a Can" Festival is known for short. And if those who attended the concerts were as happy as Lloyd Schwartz, it's all good, or should be. Then why am I not smiling? Because, for all the certifiable quality of the music at the FCM, the whole thing strikes me as an opportunity lost.
Imagine, for instance, a hypothetical festival attendee. Smart, curious, fond of the arts, open to new experiences, our attendee — let's call her Julie, in honor of my kid sister — is a relative newcomer to classical music. But Julie has always wanted to spend a week at Tanglewood, and timed her visit to coincide with last Saturday night's performance by Yo-Yo Ma (one of her favorites) of Elgar's Cello Concerto (another of her favorites). To make the most of the experience, Julie also decided to check out everything else on the week's schedule, including the FCM. What impression would Julie get of contemporary classical from the concerts she attended? Would contemporary classical be another art form to add to the novels, movies and plays she greatly enjoys? Would anything have absolutely knocked her out, and have turned her into a new music maven? Anything to make her say "wow?"
I doubt it. I think it's more likely that Julie would get the impression that contemporary classical music was some kind of inside thing, fine for those who already knew and liked it, but with little to offer to newbies. Insular, secretive, detached from the vernacular, more devoted to reviving and preserving the past (such as Castlglioni's extremely austere brand of 20th-century musical modernism) than looking toward the present or future, contemporary classical would be nowhere near as interesting to Julie than the new things coming out in the other art forms she likes, including other kinds of music. An opportunity lost, perhaps forever. That's a shame.
And it doesn't have to be that way. I can remember several youthful encounters with new classical sounds that made my jaw drop, my eyes bug out, and my mind boggle. Like the first time I heard the original recording of Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia." Or Terry Riley's "In C" at Western Connecticut State College (now University), on a field trip organized by my avant-garde oboe-playing high school music teacher Joseph Celli. Speaking of Joe, there was the time he almost literally had to pull me out of the phono-equipped practice room where I sat entranced by Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Stimmung" (which was lots more fun than practicing the trombone). And seeing Jan DeGaetani and the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble do George Crumb's awe-inspiring "Ancient Voices of Children" at UConn. Every one a "wow!"
So listen up, BSO and other presenters. You can program contemporary classical music and curate your new music festivals in ways that maintain the highest musical standards while also shaking things up and drawing new fans. I would start by cutting the average age of your composers — and target audience — by at least a third. That doesn't mean that all the elder statespersons have to be dumped, but it does mean a change in focus. I would include lots more "here-and-now"-sounding works, ideally spread across the festival, but if you felt you had to segregate them on a single program, that's OK too. Without being too chauvinistic, it would please me if more of the composers were American, especially if together they better reflected the amazing diversity of the current American cultural landscape. And I would make darned sure that each program has one absolute sure-fire knockout. The kind of piece that would make my sister Julie and others like her go "wow!" That's not too much to ask, is it?
(Photo: Jonathan Berman conducts Niccolò Castiglioni's "Tropi" at Tanglewood on August 12.)