Curated programs were a new and determining feature of Tanglewood’s 2017 Festival of Contemporary Music. In three of the five concerts, repertory and performers were chosen by a performer-curator who selected works by composers with whom they had worked extensively. Each of the curators, pianist Jacob Greenberg, cellist Kathryn Bates, and violist Nadia Sirota had been at Tanglewood (as part of the New Fromm players) and had developed a significant career in playing and promoting new compositions. The result was a concentration of works by composers of varied backgrounds who are living and working in the United States, and of an age that can be described as “mid-career.” Each curator got to choose one work to be included on the final TMC Orchestra concert.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.
In Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère d l’instante for 24 strings, cimbalom and percussion it is easy to dwell on the cimbalom as a freak in the concert hall, but Hungarian Xavér Ferenc Szabó introduced it to the symphony orchestra in the 19th century when it was essentially gypsy folk music instrument and later Zoltán Kodály used it in the 20th century in his symphonic music. The instrument is far older, a sort of piano before the keyboard and related mechanism were invented, probably used in the middle and near east in ancient times, coming west not too much later. One music historian describes its sound “rather like a piano that has taken its clothes off!” That gives the cimbalom an unfair primitive appearance, its construction no doubt demands as much care and refined techniques as any to sound so convincing next to the usual bowed strings. It no doubt strikes the ears of a modern audience accustomed to symphonic music as antique or near eastern, at least exotic, but I don’t think Dutilleux intended to make any such avant-garde statement for its own sake, and the piece certainly doesn’t have the form of a concerto. Rather I think he wanted a windless orchestra, a study in strings, without even much plucking, mostly bowing and tapping, if we can think of the percussion instruments as two dimensional strings.
In the decade after the second world war, Paris and London, in addition to the big national companies, supported a myriad of small and prolific ballet companies. One of these was Boris Kochno’s Ballets des Champs-Elysées. Kochno had been Serge Diaghelev’s secretary in the Ballets Russes days, so in a way it was he who inherited the Ballets Russes tradition in Europe while Colonel de Basil and Serge Denham’s two respective Ballets Russes spin-offs were still touring the US and Australia. Kochno, as artistic director, founded the company with writer Jean Cocteau, and dancer and choreographer Roland Petit, who had trained in the Paris Opera Ballet School and danced in the corps de ballet until the Liberation. In 1948 Petit started his own small company, the Ballets de Paris, which only lasted a few years, but managed to cause great excitement in Paris and travelled well to London. Indeed, he worked with Margot Fontaine several times. We don’t often get to see his ballets nowadays (though there are also a great many other modern ballets from those years, even some of Michel Fokine’s, that don’t get much air either), but the Paris Opera Ballet is currently showing three of Petit’s short pieces, Le Rendez-vous (1945), Le Loup (1953) and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (1946) which have been in the national company’s repertoire since 1992, 1975 and 1990 respectively.