July 21, 2014
by Michael J. Moran
The final program in the 2014 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, the Fromm Concert, featured four pieces that pay tributes of some kind.
The opening “Concerto for Orchestra” was the last work completed by Roger Sessions. A tribute to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he first heard as a child of 14 and which later premiered several of his works, the concerto was both the oldest (1981) work on the program and in some ways still the most difficult to listen to. Yet, the brilliant playing of the young musicians and the deft balancing of conductor Stefan Asbury revealed surprising moments of lyrical warmth amid the composer’s more characteristic dissonance.
Steven Mackey’s 2008 concerto for violin and orchestra, called “Beautiful Passing,” is a tribute to his mother, whose last words were “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.” Former TMC fellow Sarah Silver played the challenging solo role with poise, abandon, and a rich, creamy tone. Lovingly shaped by conducting fellow Daniel Cohen, the performance highlighted the disarming beauty of the score, including a poignant passage with the “Dies Irae” in soft strings and an echo of “Taps” on solo trumpet.
Intermission was followed by the American premiere of Charlotte Bray’s 2012 piece “At the Speed of Stillness.” A tribute to her fellow English composer Benjamin Britten, its eerie soundscape evokes the Sizewell nuclear power station just north of Britten’s home in Aldeburgh on the east coast of England. The haunting score was forcefully led by conducting fellow Karina Canellakis and flawlessly played by the youthful orchestra.
TMC conducting program director Asbury was back on the podium for the best known work on the program, “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” the 1996 tribute by John Adams to Russian-born author and musician Nicolas Slonimsky. With electronics amplifying its colorful mix of timbres, the piece was played to the hilt and brought the concert and the festival to a rollicking close.
The presence of Mackey and Bray, who were applauded by performers and audience alike, gave TMC students the kind of exposure to working musicians that could prove invaluable for their careers.