As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
In the Twenty-First Century, a festival of contemporary music needs a point of focus. A broad or representative survey is impossible; there are simply too many wildly varied approaches to music-making out there than can be sampled even in a festival twice as long as the six-concert event this summer at Tanglewood. By choosing composers who have been fellows there, the organizers John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi offered a musical profile that was primarily American and tended toward the conservative side, especially compared to past festivals which a greater representation of new European music. Also shown was the arc of American musical thinking over about four generations.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.