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Guest Contributor, Maestro Apo Hsu, Reports on a Contemporary Music Concert from Tanglewood

by Liane Curtis - August 16th, 2009.
Filed under: composers, festivals. Tagged as: , , , , .

Intro by Liane Curtis:

Music Festivals of all kinds continue to find it acceptable to exclude women composers from their programming. Two cases in point are the Mostly Mozart Festival (critiqued on the blog “Life’s a Pitch”), and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (which is wryly prodded on Feministing.com). In the case of Cabrillo, of course we love Marin Alsop and her work is so groundbreaking and important, but to have 13 composers of new music at your festival, and to have them all be men, makes a statement that no women composers are worth programming – and that’s just sad. It would be appalling in any case, but in the case of someone like Alsop who earlier in her career received supported by organizations like The Women’s Philharmonic – well, it’s sad.

SO – in the case of a Festival that includes a lot of women composers – not one, not two, but six (!!) – I wanted to make sure it got some airtime here on Feminist in the Concert Hall.  AND – I am thrilled that Maestro Apo Hsu was attending one of the Tanglewood concerts, and agreed to review it for us.

Apu Ching-Hsin Hsu was the last artistic director and conductor of The Women’s Philharmonic, from 1997-2001; she directed the orchestra on their CD of Music by Florence Price. Since 2003 she has been Orchestra Director of the National Taiwan Normal University, and since 2000 she has served as Conductor-in-Residence of The Conductors Institute at Bard College. We are honored to have her writing for us.

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The 2009 Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM 09), sponsored by the Tanglewood Music Center, ran from August 7 through August 11 this year, at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Noted composer Augusta Read Thomas served as this year’s Festival Director. Over a dozen of the TMC faculty and conductors were involved and prepared performances for the five-day festival. TMC Fellows and Orchestra were a major performance force for all the concerts.

As Festival Director, Augusta Read Thomas shared her thoughts and processes on the programming for this year’s festival in the program’s welcome notes; the works performed proved to be very diverse and wide ranging in style. The two subtitles for the FCM ’09 were: “A Singing Summer” and “The Contemporary Piano”. The six FCM concerts included 11 works that featured voice, and also many significant solo piano works. Another featured aspect was the spotlight on a group of seven young composers, all around age 30: Cynthia Wong, Jaco Bancks, Judd Greenstein, Paula Matthusen, Aaron Travers, Helen Grime, and Enrico Chapela. There also were four world-premieres from a very wide age-range of composers. With a total of 31 composers, 6 women composers were featured on FCM ’09 programs.

After an intense 6-week summer of teaching at the Conductors Institute at Bard College, I had the opportunity to attend the Chamber Music Concert at Florence Gould Auditorium, Seiji Ozawa Hall on August 9, 2009, at 10:00 AM. The day was overcast and cool. A group of enthusiasts, composers, colleagues, and music lovers gathered at the early hour for the performance. The concert featured eight composers, but with an announcement made from the stage, we learned of the cancellation of Philippe Manoury’s Last, for bass clarinet and marimba.


The concert opened with Paula Matthusen’s of memory and minutiae. This piece conveyed a tranquil beauty, infiltrated with a touch of meditative reminiscence. Partially spurred from witnessing her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, the composer created a beautiful lyrical work using incomprehensible hybrid languages that uttered a sense of purity. Both performers for this work, Olenka Slywynska, soprano and Hope Shepherd, cellist, executed the music superbly, incorporating the electronic sounds in the soundscape. They created a place and mindset that brings the listener into a tranquil and utterly peaceful world.

Robin De Raaff’s Un Visage d’emprunt, (“A Borrowed Face”) opens with a quiet lone/long note on the clarinet. Benjamin Seltzer displayed a great control over his clarinet, and produced a silvery pure tone. Soon the cello (Charles Tyler) took over and gave a smooth cadenza passage. Before long a very lively conversation bounced back and forth, competitively with the different voices. The rhythmic motives and large skipping intervals charged the piece with great vitality. Partially inspired by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, at times the piece emanated a sense of mysticism. The ensemble musicians (also including Xin Jin, violin and David Hughes, piano) displayed wonderful control and crystal clear articulation, resulting in a diverse and well-executed performance.

Aaron Jay Kernis’ Two Movements (with Bells), from 2007, features contrasting movements, Presto and A Song for My Father. The piece has a singing quality, often manifested in fluid and flowing lines. A great sense of serenity and freedom permeates. Hints of jazz, blues and popular idioms drift in and out, as Kernis reminisces about his father’s love of these popular musical mediums. The musicians Stephanie Nussbaum, violin and Artem Belogurov, piano captured the essence and spirit of Kernis’ music. They were at times free flowing, combative, struggling with confrontation, and eventually retur
ning to serenity. It was a conviction-filled performance.

Tania León’s set of five songs, Singin’ Sepia is a set of five songs challenged soprano Christin Wismann’s vocal flexibility and projection. Ms. Wismann possessed excellent control over her instrument, singing with clear diction and a theatrical presence and personality. Her musical interpretation and subtle movements brought these songs alive on stage. The chamber ensemble (Dawn Posey, violin; Emil Hudyyev, clarinet; Ingrid Keller, piano I; Makiko Hiratam piano II) did their job extremely well on this technically challenging work, with the confident guidance of conductor Stephen Drury (a noted pianist). The poems by Rita Dove came to life with Leon’s setting, and the musicians delivered with bravura.


Pascal Dusapin’s Comoedia employed a larger force, with a group of TMS Fellows: Manuel Nawri, conductor; Elizabeth Reiter, soprano; Katrina Walter, flute/piccolo; Jeffrey Stephenson, oboe/English horn; Ryan Yuré, clarinet/bass clarinet; Thomas Siders, trumpet; Karin Andreasen, violin; Alyssa Hardie, viola. The music avoids tonality and possesses a theatrical flare. The conductor and the musicians gave the dense work a fine performance.

Aaron Travers’ Songs of Loss comprises three movements, I. I heard thee laugh (Stephen Crane), II. Coagula (Paul Celan) and, III. Love met me at noonday (Stephen Crane). The poetry served as inspiration, and was conveyed here by solo piano without words. All three pieces are about regret over lost love. They were first written for voice and piano and then reset for piano alone. Through recurrent motives we hear suggestions of the rhythms and word painting that recall the poetry. I heard thee laugh showcases pianistic virtuosity, and, without effort, brings the listener into the world of the poem. The second piece, Coagula, employs repeated notes and techniques including scraping the strings inside the piano, creating an airy, fantasy-like sound space. Finally, Love met me at noonday was both fiery, with large intervals, and also dreamlike, with a flare of the impressionistic. The ending fades gradually into stillness and left the listeners in a quiet trance. The pianist, Elena Doubovitskaya, did a marvelous job in bringing forth the required poetry and emotion.

The last piece on the program celebrated composer Yehudi Wyner’s 80th birthday. His Quartet for Oboe and String Trio incorporates the variation technique, with ground bass and a succession of episodes. With varying length and changing characters, we are led through a sonic journey where the music demonstrates lyricism and a wide range of emotions. The four performers, Zachary Boeding, oboe; Joseph Maile, violin; Pei-Ling Lin, viola; Kathryn Bates Williams, cello; showcased themselves with great aplomb and vitality. With crystal clear articulation, they conversed through excellent ensemble playing. The wonderful blend of tones, rhythmic sensations, drive and energy created an urgency and inevitability for the work. Of exceptional excellence was the songfulness the cellist Kathryn Bates Williams brought to the performance.

The FCM ’09 line up encompassed a wide range and great variety of musical and artistic presentations. One needs to dedicate the time, mind, spirit and space to take them all in. It was an extremely stimulating and eye/ear opening experience for the audiences. I wish I could have attended more of these Festival concerts, but I’m happy I was able to catch this one. I am looking forward to next year’s Festival and hope many more new music lovers will learn about it and gather for the events. Bravo to the team that made the FCM ’09 a great success!

One response to “Guest Contributor, Maestro Apo Hsu, Reports on a Contemporary Music Concert from Tanglewood”

  1. Aaron says:

    Just to let you know, the pianist for Songs of Loss was Nolan Pearson, not Elena Doubovitskaya.

    Best,
    Aaron