Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 12, 2022

REVIEW: BSO, "Festival of Contemporary Music+"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
July 31, August 4-8, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Ellen Highstein
Co-curated by four Tanglewood Music Center faculty to celebrate Ellen Highstein, retiring after 25 years as TMC Director, the typically wide-ranging 2022 edition of this annual festival, featuring the TMC fellows she loves to nurture, was a fitting sendoff for their beloved colleague. 

It opened with a program of music for mixed ensembles by five composers with deep Tanglewood connections, including TMC alumni Oliver Knussen, Lee Hyla, and Alvin Singleton. Two standouts were: Boston Symphony Orchestra Artistic Partner Thomas Ades’s meticulous accounts of his own rhapsodic but challenging “Three Mazurkas,” written in 2009 for pianist Emanuel Ax; and Christopher Trapani’s colorful, blues-based “Waterlines,” inspired by Hurricane Katrina’s flooding of his native New Orleans, sensitively led by TMC conducting fellow Rita Castro Blanco, with heroic speech-singing by TMC faculty soprano Tony Arnold and haunting guitar work by Dieter Hennings. 
The festival closed with the American premiere of George Benjamin’s 2018 opera “Lessons in Love and Violence” in a shattering concert performance by the TMC orchestra and eight singers conducted by the composer. The libretto by English playwright Martin Crisp is based on Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 play “Edward II.” Consisting of seven scenes separated by brief, surging orchestral interludes in two parts presented without intermission, the inventively modernist 80-minute score makes substantial demands on its vocal and instrumental forces, all of which were met with stunning success by these well-prepared musicians. 

Portrayals of deep conviction were given by baritone Nathaniel Sullivan as an anguished Edward II, TMC soprano Elizabeth Polese as a resourceful Isabel, his queen, baritone Dominik Belavy as an affecting Gaveston, his male lover, tenor Daniel McGrew as a conniving nobleman, Mortimer, and TMC tenor Edmond Rodriguez as Edward III, transforming convincingly from the king’s innocent young son to his ruthless successor.   

Other highlights of the 2022 FCM were African-American pioneer Julius Eastman’s legendary 1979 “Gay Guerrilla” and a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s silent film “The Kid” with newly composed live music by five TMC composition fellows. Several days earlier, the TMC orchestra proved its mettle in slightly older repertoire, with a program made up of an exhilarating Debussy “Printemps” under TMC conducting fellow Nicolo Foron, a prismatic Stravinsky “Agon” led by Ades, a shimmering “Lumina” by Olly Wilson under Castro Blanco, and a riotously entertaining Hindemith “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” led by Buffalo Philharmonic Music Director JoAnn Falletta in her long-overdue Tanglewood debut.   

Yet to come at Ozawa Hall is the complete solo piano music of Johannes Brahms in four concerts by Garrick Ohlsson (August 16, 18, 23, and 25).