Every composer is in some sense an advocate for contemporary music. But some composers have developed a sideline as curators – presenting the music of others, not only their own.
In the States, the best representative is John Adams, who has an active second career as a festival curator and conductor. In the U.K., it’s Oliver Knussen, the massive and gifted Scotsman (known for the opera “Where the Wild Things Are”) who took the stage with the players of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the Library of Congress on Tuesday night.
Knussen moves with a kind of ponderous delicacy. His programming shows the same blend of the large-scale and the precise. In town for a week-long residency, thanks to the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music, he has assembled two concerts – the second will be on Friday – framed by a juxtaposition of two contrasting but comparable works: Britten and Bridge on Friday, Stravinsky and Schoenberg on Tuesday. Tuesday’s program, certainly, was a thoughtful, intelligent presentation of a wide and disparate group of pieces, representing no single school or point of view but with clear ties to the players, the hall, the audience and each other.
It opened with Stravinsky’s 1952 Septet, in which the composer began his serious experimentation with serialism, without wholly departing from his distinctive, slightly antic, slightly dry musical style, down to the final sprightly chord. And it closed with Schoenberg’s Serenade from the early 1920s, another septet in which another composer was finding his way toward pure serialism – in Schoenberg’s case, the full-blown twelve-tone technique. Both works are eccentric; Schoenberg’s includes a mandolin and guitar, and even throws in a movement for a vocal soloist (Andrew Sauvageau sang the text, a Petrarch sonnet, with aplomb). Both show the composers to some extent aware of each other. And the juxtaposition spotlit a rare point of communality between two composers who tended rather to define opposite poles of musical thought in the mid-20th century.
Between them, Knussen placed four other pieces that, rather than being defined by this aesthetic axis, defied it.
There were two works by Knussen himself: the Ophelia Dances (commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress), a piece for small chamber ensemble written in 1975, and “Ophelia’s Last Dance,” a solo piano work from 2009-10 played with flair by Huw Watkins (himself a composer, and brother of the Emerson Quartet’s new cellist Paul Watkins). These two pieces were themselves a striking contrast: the earlier work, fresh and intricate, wavered back and forth deliberately across the expressive line between mania and restraint, outlining Ophelia’s hesitant, rapid, stop-and-start footfalls, which finally sounded in clusters from the celesta falling over a sustained note of silver from the violin. The later work followed a more expected template: the dance for solo piano, with the groove and bob of popular styles weaving subtly through the rhythms.
The last two works juxtaposed European and American modernism. Niccolo Castiglioni’s “Tropi” offered skittering clusterings of notes separated by marked, almost syncopated pauses. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Three Songs” are settings of Carl Sandberg poems (the texts, alas, not printed in the program’s copious notes) in an unabashed, direct, intense manner, the words sometimes flung out in a kind of rage (in “In Tall Grass”) so that even the soprano Lucy Schaufer, who articulated and performed them excellently, couldn’t always be understood.
The musicians of this group are members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; their performances were outstanding (and enhanced, for the violist and the cellist, by the loan of two of the Library’s Stradivarii for the occasion). Each piece was valuable. Together, they made a marvelous and unusual debate. Friday’s program promises more of the same — or rather, of something completely different.
The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Oliver Knussen will perform again on Friday at 8 p.m. at the Coolidge Auditorium.