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Trans-Atlantic Sympathies: opening night at the Festival for Contemporary Music, 2016

Steven Stucky (1949-2016). Photo Hoebermann.
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Steven Stucky (1949-2016). Photo Hoebermann.
Steven Stucky (1949-2016). Photo Hoebermann.

Trans-Atlantic Sympathies: opening night at the Festival for Contemporary Music, 2016
Thursday, July 21 at Ozawa Hall:

Steven Stucky, Dialoghi for solo cello, performed by Norman Fischer (in memorium)
Witold Lutosławski, Chain 1 for 14 instruments, Nuno Coelho conductor
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Five Images after Sappho for soprano and chamber orchestra, Christian Reif conductor, Bahareh Poureslami, soprano
Magnus Lindberg, Marea for orchestra, Christian Reif conductor
Steven Stucky, Chamber Concerto (East Coast premier), Stefan Asbury, conductor

The director of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music, Steven Stucky, was a fine composer whose music occupies a centrist position in the American musical landscape, not only in his prominence, but equally due to his traditionally-oriented style. Stucky’s premature death last February at the age of sixty-six deprived this year’s festival of a director and the music world of a distinguished voice, but in the FCM programming his musical personality is apparent. Imaginative and resourceful, his music has an appealing surface, a familiarity of materials, and a clear and direct emotional appeal, speaking to the influence of mainstream American composers like Aaron Copland.1 Added to this, however, is his absorption of innovative trends that developed in Europe contemporaneously with his own growth, particularly in the music of older-generation Polish composer Witold Lutosławski,2 as well as Stucky’s sense of kinship with younger European composers who shared that influence.

Stucky’s musical affiliations were well-displayed in the program he chose to open this year’s festival. He has written “…Esa-Pekka Salonen and I are musical brothers, and both of us look on Witold Lutosławski as a father. As descendants of that musical line, whatever the actual differences in the sound of our music (which are substantial), Esa-Pekka and I also occupy similar territory on the aesthetic spectrum.”3 This program could be taken as a musical expression of that sentiment. After a short, lyrical cello piece of Stucky’s, added to the program as a memorial to the composer, the originally planned first composition was heard: a concise Lutosławski masterpiece that effectively displays the composer’s mature signature sound and process, “Chain 1” from 1983. This nine-minute work for a chamber orchestra consisting of three brass, four winds, five strings, harpsichord, and percussion juxtaposes static-sounding semi-improvised sections with others that are fully-composed and metrically structured in a seamlessly overlapping continuity, a procedure that had become typical for the composer’s later style.

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).
Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).

Lutosławski (1913-1994) offers an example of a brilliant composer whose style continued to develop significantly over a very long period of time in a way linked to major historical developments, including World War II, the post-war Communist era, the cultural thaw of Warsaw Autumn from 1959 on, and the subsequent increasingly available influences of more radical developments in European and American music. His fundamental orientation was toward building powerful arching musical structures (influenced by Beethoven) utilizing a harmonic language constructed on the basis of French impressionism but embracing a wide range of harmonic materials (including 12-note harmonies), semi-aleatoric procedures (after his encounter with John Cage), a recognizable melodic style owing something to Polish folk music, and including a highly refined sense of instrumental color that was on full display in Chain 1 of 1983.

The performance by members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra led by Nuno Coelho, superbly captured the continuous timbral fluctuations of this translucent, playful yet structurally compelling work, written as the composer was transitioning from his most radically modernist period to one that integrated new techniques into a more highly accessible language. Chain 1 left one wishing that it were a longer work. (It is in many ways a small-scale study for larger compositions from that period such as the powerful Third Symphony, composed in the same year.)

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

The reputation of Finnish musician Esa-Pekka Salonen is most prominently that of a conductor, particularly through his tenures with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra; but, since he has retired from regular conducting posts, his own compositions have received increased attention, particularly his Violin Concerto of 2009 which has been widely played and beautifully recorded. Salonen had been composing all along, and his songs based on text fragments by Sappho date back to 1994. Like Lutosławski, Salonen’s music places strong emphasis on color and timbral combinations that are based on the harmonic series but are not conventionally tonal. His command of orchestration allows him to juxtapose layers that move at different rates; in the Five Images after Sappho (1999) richly sustained middle and lower sonorities underpin a layer of rapid upper-range figuration that verges on but never actually achieves complete independence. A third strand in this fabric is the soprano voice that moves in and out of these layers, at several points blending in so thoroughly as to sound like another wind instrument (an effect superbly realized by the fine soprano Bahareh Poureslami). The combination of such contrasting yet complementary materials parallels Lutosławski’s, and not coincidentally, Salonen is perhaps that composer’s most eloquent interpreter among today’s active conductors.4 Unfortunately, the program did not supply copies of the words which, though in English, were not readily comprehensible. I do not fault the singer, since Salonen’s response to these erotically charged text fragments is a siren-like drawn-out lyricism that emphasizes vowels over consonants, offering seduction rather than articulation.

Magnus Lindberg
Magnus Lindberg

Salonen’s compatriot Magnus Lindberg counts as the most radical of the program’s composers, and perhaps the one whose harmonic language departs from the impressionist tonal language of his colleagues. The program notes indicate that Lindberg’s densely complex harmonic choices were made with the aid of a computer. The initial stylistic impression seems closer to Stockhausen’s Gruppen than to other works on this program. But his tone poem Marea (“Tide”)5 links directly to Debussy in its evocation of the sea, particularly about 2/3rds of the way through where there is a clear reference to the closing pages of “La Mer.” Otherwise Lindberg’s is a more thoroughly complex, even cluttered work where discernible events must be teased out by the listener from its hyper-active surface. Attentive listening eventually discovers emerging patterns in which the initial textures which span the full range of the large orchestra begin to differentiate based on register and rhythmic character, and the impressionist-coloristic influence gradually emerges. The suggestive title seems apt: we are virtually submerged in sound, and gradually become aware of the fluid dynamics around us, moving in swells and layered wave motions leading to a Debussyan apotheosis, and beyond.

Stucky’s Chamber Concerto from 2009 is structured in one twenty minute continuity with sections of clearly defined contrasting character. It begins with three over-lapping open fifths, a sound which instantly evokes mid-century American pastoralism (e.g. the beginning of Copland’s Billy the Kid.) This and harmonies built upon it form a ritornello that constitutes an immediately graspable structure. The writing is brilliant, especially the solos (as befits a concerto for the whole group), and the textures are more richly integrated, the sonorities generally warmer, than the other works on the program. Stucky’s compositional materials are quite traditional and he emphasizes clarity of development through a form of developing variations that nevertheless do not stray too far too fast from their source. Textures return in modified form, for example, the skittering woodwinds often playing in pairs a third apart; individual instruments are granted personalities, such as the skittish oboe, the jazzy trumpet, and especially the beautifully written (and performed) horn solos. The longest solos, for flute, signal the arrival of the denouement which leads to a brief but powerful tutti followed by a dissipation of tension and an abrupt, witty final accent. This piece must be quite challenging to perform: its textures are volatile, constantly on the move. Needless to say the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra performed with virtuosic assurance, rich sonority, and eloquent solos under the baton of Stefan Asbury, who conducted as if he has known the score for years. This was an East Coast premiere.

All four works on the program were characterized by high energy levels, complexity, brilliant scoring, original conceptions, and personal voice. One was left wanting to know more of each composer’s work. For me, the musical “father” figure of the program stood several notches higher than the rest. I’ve been asked who in the second half of the twentieth century will stand comparison to the greats of the first half, not to speak of the more distant past. Aside from questioning the legitimacy of such an inquiry, I am tempted to start the list with Lutosławski (with Ligeti as a strong second contender). This composer managed to create a powerful, distinctive voice that draws on the structural strength of the symphonic/classical tradition while exploring virtually every form of innovation in musical language and technique (including score design). Each piece is guided by a powerfully unified overall concept and unfolds with a succession of stunning, kaleidoscopic colors. Chain 1 exemplified this: in its lucidity, succinctness, elegance, and surprising yet coherent succession of musical ideas and sonorities, it was obvious that every note counted, every detail was inevitable. This is what Mozart might have sounded like in the twentieth century. All the more credit to Stucky et al. for finding so much inspiration in his work.

  1. Stucky was a board member of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. He has written that Copland’s music was a primary point of reference as he was deciding to become a composer.
  2. In 1981, he published the book Lutosławski and his Music, Cambridge/New York
  3. Liner notes to the CD “Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky, and Lutosławski,” Telarc CD-0712, 2008.
  4. He has recorded all four of Lutosławski’s symphonies in excellent performances.
  5. 1989-90; the central part of an orchestral trilogy also including Kinetics and Joy.

About Laurence Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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