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Hilary Scott
Stefan Asbury, head of Tanglewood Music Center's conducting program, leads soprano Alexandra Smither in Oliver Knussen's "Songs and a Sea-Interlude" for soprano and orchestra at Tanglewood on July 30, 2018.

REVIEW: Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music included new and demanding pieces, mourned the loss of one of its own

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By Thursday, Aug 9, 2018 Arts & Entertainment

Lenox — During this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music, the Tanglewood Music Center paid tribute to composer, conductor, teacher and former head of contemporary music at the TMC (1986-93) Oliver Knussen, who died July 8, 2018. He was 66 years old. TMC administration and faculty speak not only of their professional respect for Knussen but also of their deep personal affection for their longtime friend and mentor.

Composer-conductor Oliver Knussen, left, takes his bows with composer Elliot Carter following a performance of Carter’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ in Ozawa Hall during the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo: David Noel Edwards

Widely recognized as one of Britain’s most important contemporary composers, Knussen began his association with Tanglewood and the TMC when he was 18 years old. His works have been performed at Tanglewood dozens of times, including a performance at this year’s closing FCM concert July 30, when Stefan Asbury conducted Knussen’s “Songs and a Sea Interlude” from “Where the Wild Things Are,” the opera Knussen created in collaboration with Maurice Sendak.

TMC director Ellen Highstein describes Knussen as “an extraordinary and wonderful composer; a fine conductor; and an unparalleled champion of the work of his colleagues and students.” Stefan Asbury, head of TMC’s conducting program, writes, “A more generous, supportive advocate and friend you could not wish for,” and TMC composition head Michael Gandolfi writes: “Olly was one of the very few in whom I could confide about all things musical and otherwise. He was a mentor, a friend, a father figure, and most generous with his love, time, support, and knowledge. I will miss him dearly—beyond words.”

Excerpts from “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” by Oliver Knussen:

This year’s FCM composers included, as usual, both mainstays and newcomers. Knussen and Witold Lutoslawski are perhaps the best known. But György Kurtág, Harrison Birtwistle, and Jonathan Harvey are also familiar to many. A favorite of Knussen, Niccolò Castiglioni, is encountered less frequently. Per Nørgård and Poul Ruders have appeared on FCM programs many times over the years.

Somewhat lesser known voices this year included additional members of Knussen’s generation: Gerald Barry, Chen Yi and former TMC composition fellow Judith Weir. Sean Shepherd, a more recent TMC fellow, appeared on an FCM program for the second time, his contemporary Andrew Norman for the third.

Jordan Brokken and Allison Drenkow perform Judith Weir’s ‘Wake Your Wild Voice’ July 28 at Seiji Ozawa Hall as part of Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo: Hilary Scott

Newer names this year included Oliver Christoph Leith (his “Dream Horse” was commissioned for the festival and received its world premiere July 26), Veronika Krausas, Rebecca Saunders, Francisco Coll and Javier Álvarez.

BSO artistic partner Thomas Adès directed this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music, conducting his highly demanding piano concerto “In Seven Days” for the festival’s closing concert. “Highly demanding” is probably an understatement, but with Koussevitzky Artist Kirill Gerstein at the keyboard, a successful performance was all but assured: Mr. Gerstein loves the piece, having first performed it in November 2012, and, on July 30, he made it sound truly spectacular (although, in all likelihood, no pianist could ever make this concerto sound easy).

Thomas Adès leads pianist Kirill Gerstein and the Festival of Contemporary Music in Adès ‘In Seven Days’ July 30 at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

Mr. Adès saved the best for last: the late Polish composer Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 3, a piece written during — and almost certainly influenced by — anti-Soviet political events in Poland during the early 1980s (in particular the rise of Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity movement, which famously contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the Soviet Union’s demise).

Not unexpectedly, Lutoslawski — in a manner reminiscent of Dmitri Shostakovich’s tactics during the Stalin years — pretended that his third symphony was devoid of extra-musical meaning. To wit, he claimed his symphony was about nothing in particular. It’s understandable that he would say this, given Poland’s repressive political climate at the time, but his third symphony actually was(and still is) about something very much in particular. And, of course, Lutoslawski knew this as well as anyone. When questioned about it pointedly, Lutoslawski acknowledged that his third symphony actually does reflect, if only in abstract terms, something about the society he lived in. (In any case, Lech Walesa appreciated receiving, directly from Lutoslawski, a recording of the symphony’s first performance.)

There can be no doubt that Witold Lutoslawski’s third symphony represents the composer’s emotional response to events he witnessed in Poland at a time when the country seemed on the brink of either disintegration or democracy. Lutoslawski’s world was exceedingly tumultuous in the late 1970s, and we hear a vivid account of it in his Symphony No. 3.


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