Serge Koussevitzky’s legacy celebrated

May 4

Serge Koussevitzky shepherded many compositions into existence as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In his final years, he established two foundations to carry on the work of commissioning new music. These foundations have now merged, and their home base, the Library of Congress, celebrated the legacy of the Russian conductor with a concert on Friday night.

Some of the Koussevitzky commissions have become contemporary classics, beginning with Lukas Foss’s “Capriccio” for cello and piano, from the foundation’s first years. In a genial neoclassical vein, it received a joyous performance from two veteran performers, pianist Ursula Oppens and cellist Fred Sherry, the latter with sometimes dicey intonation at the top of the A string.

Three of Copland’s restrained, often bluesy settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, composed in the same period, were phrased sensitively by Oppens at the piano and sung with simplicity by soprano Tony Arnold, whose voice betrayed a scratchy edge. George Crumb’s second book of madrigals, from 1965, was a delight, aphoristic wisps of unearthly sound, somehow produced from various sizes of flute, percussion, whistling, hissing and singing, wrapped around the equally surreal words of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The Momenta Quartet gave a capable performance of Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit” (1976), with first violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron standing out for her theremin-like flautando sound. Lyrical solos from cellist Michael Haas made a case for Augusta Read Thomas’s “Eagle at Sunrise” (2002), one of her “Sun Threads” string quartets, but otherwise the work relied too much on insistent sforzando strikes and dissonant tremolo clusters. Most of the performers joined together at the end for Charles Wuorinen’s alternately acerbic and detached “New York Notes,” with ear-piercing flute writing. The biggest disappointment was the cancellation of Milton Babbitt’s nutty “Phonemena,” replaced with the composer’s less-enchanting solo cello work “More Melismata.”

Downey is a freelance writer.


Serge Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood in 1949. (Leonard Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress)
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