All music was once new. But in America, ever since Serge Koussevitzky founded the Berkshire Music Center on July 8, 1940, in Lenox, Mass., composers and their new music found a home for experimentation and performance.
Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was the inaugural piece that balmy summer afternoon at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in July and August eerv since then. Renamed the Tanglewood Music Center, it was created to “sustain the entire classical music culture” with its own faculty and administration.
Now celebrating its 75th year as an institution, more than 60 members of the Boston Symphony spend time with 125 orchestral and vocal students giving master classes, repertoire classes, sectional rehearsals and coaching chamber music. Composers and up-and-coming conductors also attend, and in the latter instance get to conduct the massive TMC student orchestra.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s Miami-based New World Symphony could be thought of as an extension of the orchestral part since his players must all be under 25. A Fellow in 1969, Tilson Thomas won the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize at Tanglewood and is a frequently welcome visitor. He conducted the July 27 concert.
Composer Aaron Copland was the first principal appointed by Koussevitzky in 1940. Paul Hindemith and Randall Thompson were on the faculty that year. Two precocious geniuses, 21-year-old Leonard Bernstein and 17-year-old Lukas Foss, arrived in the first year, virtually guaranteeing this summer school as a destination for ambitious young composers. Among whom, to name a few, were: Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen, Bohuslav Martinů , Luciano Berio, Gunther Schuller, Elliott Carter, John Cage, and more recently, Oliver Knussen, Augusta Read Thomas, Helen Grime and Andreia Pinto-Correia.
Every year a whole week is devoted to new music. A retrospective sheen, naturally, overshadowed this year’s concerts but they remained solidly grounded with 15 newly commissioned works to celebrate the Music Center’s 75 anniversary. To end a glorious week of music making, the TMC Orchestra was joined by the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Chorus with Tilson Thomas conducting, and three promising conducting fellows in works by Foss, Bernstein and Copland and one outsider, Charles Ives, who never set foot inside Tanglewood though he lived close by in Connecticut, the next state over.
The July 27 concert began with Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs for a small wind ensemble composed in 1949. It’s a curious hybrid, originally commissioned by jazz clarinetist Woody Herman and his big band. The three movements merge into each other and Bernstein’s polyglot compositional style here includes classical, jazz and swing music chock full of dense counterpoint and syncopated phrases. Woody Herman’s band folded before Bernstein’s piece was finished. The version we heard was orchestrated in 1988 by Foss.
It opens with six blaring trumpets, trombones and a throbbing bass drum. An alto saxophone has a nice phrase which is passed around until the entire five member saxophone section plays a swing theme in the Prelude. They initiate the Fugue, still keeping swing time, until a solo piano ushers in the concluding Riffs section. A cheeky solo clarinet enters with bravura trills and flourishes. Everyone joins in. Daring swing music blares out defiantly with rowdy melodic repeats and the solo clarinet screeches out one last high note at the end. Thrilling stuff, met by roars of applause.
Next came Foss’s own Quintets for Orchestra. Dividing the orchestra into five chamber groups of five, Foss was always trying to expand the role of new music by fracturing the status quo. Two were of brass at opposite corners, one of flutes and clarinets, one of double reeds and one of strings. To which Foss adds timpani, chimes, and an electric organ.
Strings open, sounding like a harmonica in low continuous tones breathlessly going in and out. Winds punctuate this with a five-note theme repeated often. The trumpets pick it up and a huge crescendo swells to a roar as it ends. A solo clarinet introduces a loud orchestral interjection, serene horns play beautifully. Like automatons, a series of plain chords monotonously draw back and forth. A cacophony of busy brass relish their time in the spotlight, delivering some exciting music for a while. A solo piccolo grows gradually louder to bring the Quintets to an end.
The Foss piece was also met by warm applause. Here I must declare a mild conflict of interest. As a young man I accompanied the late Colin Mason, music critic of The Guardian, to one such contemporary music festival in 1961, where I met and talked with Bernstein, Foss and Copland, whose Orchestral Variations was the next piece on the program.
This piece began as Piano Variations. Now acknowledged as a landmark of American musical modernism, it was rejected by Walter Gieseking, who wrote “I do not know an audience which would accept such crude dissonances without protesting.” So Copland played it before a friendly audience at the 1931 meeting of the New York League of Composers. He waited another 27 years before orchestrating this material in 1957. Putting aside the piano and a desire to orchestrate in terms of piano sounds, he chose to rethink its sonorous orchestral colors, with the perspective of a long time lapse.
It starts with four massive orchestral chords, followed by a long pause. A low sonorous cello melody takes over only to be cut short by nice-sounding brass and woodwinds; piccolo notes cry out mournfully above it all. Violins now have their say, followed by a big question-and-answer orchestral sound. Dominant brass and loud bass drum cut in. A clarinet almost introduces the Appalachian Spring theme, but shies quickly away. Cheeky woodwinds interfere as an anxious five-note phrase is passed around. Long slow violin passages followed by heavy timpani meet fluent brass at their best with lovely dissonant discords interjected with xylophone runs.
Using full orchestral forces, Copland almost breaks into Appalachian Spring again, but backs off once more. The doom of three heavy drumbeats, followed by a huge crescendo, takes this thrilling music to a close. Four long ovations, the greatest I heard that week, met conductor and orchestra. Maestro Tilson Thomas took the score from the lectern and closed it. Raising it high for all to see, he blessed it with a kiss.
After intermission came the Charles Ives work, the Holidays Symphony. Tilson Thomas introduced the work paying tribute to Ives, saying he had massive vision and likened him to Walt Whitman. Its four movements were composed over a period of 16 years, 1897 to 1913, and are meant to stand alone, “There is no special musical connection among them,’’ he wrote, “and have been bound separately and may be played separately.”
The first, “Washington’s Birthday,” begins in the lower strings breaking out into separate contrapuntal lines; trading melodies are the flute, solo horn and the first violins. The music gets denser and a jaw harp is introduced, playing an extended passage reminiscent of old-time barn dancing. A solo violin saws away in a different rhythm and a different key in snatches of “Sailor’s Hornpipe,’’ “Camptown Races,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and many other old tunes musicologists have been unable to pin down. By now the listener gets the idea that this is patriotic inspired music from a great patriot and equally great composer.
The second movement, “Decoration Day,” was conducted by music fellow Ruth Reinhardt. It is a calmer piece with multilayered lines that are diatonic which progressively grow more chromatic. The hymn “Adeste Fideles” is heard, during which orchestral bells play along. An offstage trumpet sounds “Taps’’ against the tune “Nearer My God to Thee,’’ interrupted by the playing of two rival town marching bands converging — a favorite Ives effect.
The third movement, “The Fourth of July,” had another woman conducting fellow on the podium, Marzena Diakun. Beginning very quietly with muted strings, it develops into the patriotic song “The Red, White and Blue.” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’ and “Yankee Doodle’’ are also detected in fragments or hints they may develop into their fully fledged versions, but never do. A fife-and-drum corps plays independently of the orchestra and the climax sounds like a firework display.
“Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day,” the last movement, conducted by Christian Reif, is the longest and most monumental. Added to the full orchestra are five percussionists on fixed pitch instruments, an offstage band of four horns, trombone and contrabassoon, and a chorus. It begins with a loud chorale that eventually implodes in disorienting metrical layers. Sections veer off the beat as a group. Gradually they return to common time.
The climax of the symphony is from the chorus who sing the Thanksgiving hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign,’’ by the Rev. Leonard Bacon, a New Haven cleric. When the chorus is gone, the orchestra fades away and all that’s left are the upper strings, bells and soft timpani. The 1,600 people attending rose as one to celebrate Ives’ magnificent achievement with roars of applause. It’s time this piece entered the repertory of every American orchestra from this moment on. Especially on July Fourth.