Rambling About Tanglewood: Make way for younger composers

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LENOX, MASS. — Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music this year sports a youthful look and sound.

Instead of a senior composer as director, three recent Tanglewood Music Center graduates are serving as co-curators of the five-day festival-within-a-festival, which opens tonight with a program for mixed ensembles. Like past programs in the series, it features younger composers — many names will be unfamiliar except to avid new-music devotees — along with such figures from an older generation as Sofia Gubaidulina and Gy rgy Kurtag.

But there's a difference. This year, the current generation is doing the choosing and programming.

Let curator and violist Nadia Sirota explain why the emphasis on music of today — for her, in performance, broadcast and now a return to Tanglewood — is important. She has Tanglewood roots going back to her childhood and hosts the Peabody Award-winning podcast "Meet the Composer."

"One of the most complicated ways to get into classical music is to start at the beginning. `Hey! You've never heard any classical music before, here, start with this 250-year old music!' For me, new music is a far simpler gateway. New music has cultural currency — you're hearing music that is of your time! Made by someone who watched the same movies as you did growing up, watched the same television shows!"

The takeaway: "So if you like that — say, for example, you like Nico Muhly — well, maybe you'll like Stravinsky, who had a profound impact on him. If you like Stravinsky, well, maybe you'll like Ravel. If you like Ravel, check out Satie, and so on and so forth."

Nico Muhly, whose opera "Two Boys" received its Met premiere in 2013, happens to occupy a sizable place in Sirota's life. They have remained close since their days together at the Juilliard School, and he has composed a viola concerto and other works for her. His new work "Clip," a TMC commission, gets its world premiere on her FCM program Sunday morning.

Each of the three curators is an instrumentalist rather than composer. Each will premiere a TMC-commissioned work.

Tonight's program, for example, was created by pianist Jacob Greenberg. It features the world premiere of "All thorn, but cousin to your rose," a commission, by Anthony Cheung. For tomorrow afternoon, cellist Kathryn Bates designed a program including the premiere of Kui Dong's commissioned "A Night at Tanglewood," for string quartet, music boxes and glass vessels.

The series culminates Monday night in a TMC Orchestra program that features Henri Dutilleux' 1997 "Shadows of Time," a work commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Formalizing new-music activities that date back to Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith in Tanglewood's earliest years, "FCM" (as it is known on campus) was founded in 1964. Important recent events have included the American stage premiere of Elliott Carter's opera "What Next?" (2006) and the American premiere, in concert performance, of George Benjamin's opera "Written on Skin," conducted by the composer (2013).

Most performances are given by TMC students, with assistance from the New Fromm Chamber Players, made up of recent TMC graduates (and named for Paul Fromm, the series' founding patron). Occasional BSO members also pitch in. Sirota and Bates went on to two years each as Fromm players.

"I loved to play on the lawn and in the formal gardens, absorbing classical music by osmosis and falling in love with it," Sirota, now 34, recalls of the years, up till age 9, she spent as a Tanglewood brat.

She is the daughter of Victoria Sirota and composer Robert Sirota; he was director of the Boston University School of Music and teacher in the B.U. Tanglewood Institute composition program in the 1980s and early 1991. Her brother Jonah, likewise a violist, also spent summers at Tanglewood with the family, attending concerts and hanging out with composers and musicians.

"Both children," Robert Sirota writes, "have remarked on how having a composer for a father and an organist-choir director for a mother gave them an early sense of what a life in music was about, and how interesting and important it is for performers to have working relationships with living composers."

Nadia went on to play viola in such new-music groups as Alarm Will Sound and, in 2013, create her podcast. It combines performances and interviews with emerging composers.

"In an era in which classical composition stands on the sidelines of mainstream culture," William Robin wrote in The New Yorker last March, "'Meet the Composer' reveals what composers are up to in the present day. Part of its instructive force is due to the magnanimous presence of Sirota, a violist and mainstay of the New York new-music scene."

And that's the FCM vibe this year.

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