Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Lenox, Massachusetts
late June through Labor Day

Tanglewood, the Big Daddy of summer music festivals now in its 62nd season, has lots of things going for it: name recognition (even die-hard rockers have heard of Tanglewood), star appeal (performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw and Patrick Stewart), a beautiful easy-to-get-to-from-New-York setting (smack in Massachusetts’ heavenly Berkshire Mountains), and a big budget (300,000 people came through the gates last year).

“Tanglewood” is actually an umbrella term that covers many things. Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who give an eight-week concert series of sure-shot crowd pleasers like all-Johann Strauss programs (give ’em the waltzes and marches) at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, known as just “The Shed.” The only contemporary composers one is likely to hear at a BSO summer concert are Bernstein and Copland.

Tanglewood also means free outdoor Boston Pops concerts, performances by folk and pop artists like James Taylor, and recitals at the new Seiji Ozawa Hall by four-star classical talent like the Juilliard String Quartet and Emanuel Ax. But at Ozawa Hall, things contemporary rank about the same as the BSO’s programming: one bright spot this year features Upshaw singing an all-American program which includes Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle.

However, it is a third definition of Tanglewood — a summer music academy and its accompanying music festival — that is of particular interest to contemporary music fans. Founded in 1940 by former BSO musical director Serge Koussevitzky, the Tanglewood Music Center is a musical think tank of 150 top students and akin faculty from around the world (Aaron Copland ran the composition program for many years).

“I went to Tanglewood in 1989 as a student and it was one of the best times of my entire life,” says emerging composer Randall Woolf, whose work White Heat, given its New York premiere by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last fall, was commissioned by the TMC while he was there.

TMC presents its own concert series of chamber music, orchestral works and music theater — much of it contemporary — in addition to its much-anticipated yearly week-long Festival of Contemporary Music, this year held July 22-27.

The Festival “focuses attention on the music of our own time in a way that even the most dedicated mainstreaming does not,” says Tanglewood Music Center Director Ellen Highstein. “The contemporary music community has come to expect it as a time when unusual works are performed with an extraordinarily high degree of preparation. Also, this is a time when the field — composers, publishers, record companies — gets together to listen together to their own music.”

What sets the TMC’s festival apart is that it is a major new music festival entirely performed by students instead of by professional players or a designated festival subset like a contemporary ensemble. New this year is the addition of faculty concerts (faculty here means pianist Peter Serkin or hot BAM conductor Robert Spano) given as “Preludes” to a main event.

Directing the 1999 Festival is the in-demand Chinese-American composer and conductor Tan Dun, who has weighed the programming picks toward upcoming composers. Two themes unite his choices of works: Youth, and the interrelationship between Eastern composers who have learned from the West and Western composers who have learned from the East.

With Tan’s interest in younger composers, the Festival is taking on a different vibe than the last few years, when previous director Reinbert De Leeuw stuck to a personal interest in older masterworks. Just comparing last year’s composers-in-residence — Henry Dutilleux, in his 80s, and Mauricio Kagel, in his late 70s — with this year’s — the British George Benjamin and the Dutch Rob Zuidam, both in their 30s — belies a less stodgy atmosphere.

During this week a Tanglewoodie can dig into works like Tan’s Red Forecast, Judith Weir’s The Consolations of Scholarship, Nicholas Maw’s Ghost Dances, or works by Chen Yi, Carlos Sanchez-Guiterrez or Claude Vivier.

“We’re an American festival and are very interested in representing American composers — but we are also an international festival where people come together to look at what’s new and what’s interesting all around the world,” says Highstein.

From Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms
by Mic Holwin
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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