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A Weekend Can Span Centuries at Tanglewood

It was at its most concentrated in 2008, when it was devoted entirely to music of Elliott Carter, in celebration of his 100th birthday. Last year it was programmed by Steven Stucky, who died months before the actual festival, and this year it was at its most democratic, programmed (curated, in the festival’s term) by three alumni of the Tanglewood Music Center: Jacob Greenberg, a pianist; Kathryn Bates, a cellist; and Nadia Sirota, a violist.

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Tanglewood Music Center fellows performing David Lang’s “just” during the Festival of Contemporary Music.

Credit
Hilary Scott

Mr. Greenberg’s program, which opened the festival, offered two works commissioned for the occasion, both with heady intellectual conceits but relatively little to move the soul. Nathan Davis’s “The Sand Reckoner,” a meditation on vast quantities and multitudes for six voices and celesta, supplemented a basic declamation of a text by Archimedes with words of the Wycliffe Bible, William Blake and a French children’s counting song. Anthony Cheung’s “All thorn, but cousin to your rose” set “The Art of Translation” by Vladimir Nabokov and tried to show how experiments with Google’s translation program could devolve into a game of telephone. Both brainy and clever, but no cigar.

Ms. Bates’s concert, on Friday, was generally more involving. The commissioned work was Kui Dong’s “A Night at Tanglewood,” a work for string quartet with the players doubling on an array of water glasses and bowls. Real depth came mainly at the end of the program, in the String Quartet No. 4 (“Amazing Grace,” 1973) by the veteran Ben Johnston, using an exotic tuning.

But Ms. Sirota’s program, on Sunday, was the most emotionally compelling of the three. It began with David Lang’s stunningly simple and lovely “just” (2014), a setting drawn from the Song of Songs, in a beautiful performance by three singers, Mary Bonhag, Fotina Naumenko and Jazimina MacNeil, and ended with Mr. Dennehy’s “Surface Tension.” Again there was a newly commissioned work, “Clip” by Nico Muhly, but even at a mere 10 minutes or so, it eventually wore out its welcome.

The Boston Symphony concert on Saturday evening opened with Julian Anderson’s “Incantesimi” (2016), just after a festival prelude concert had offered his ensemble work “Van Gogh Blue” (2015). Both showed a sure compositional hand but involved relocating players to puzzlingly little effect. Caroline Shaw’s string quartet “Blueprint” (2016) probed deeply in the prelude concert, but then, in a quick pizzicato exit, seemed to suggest that it had all been something of a joke.

And oh, yes, those Boston Symphony concerts. Giancarlo Guerrero conducted a riveting account of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” on Friday, no small achievement after short rehearsal, the norm for these summer programs. The Brahms Double Concerto that opened the concert, with Gil Shaham as violinist and Alisa Weilerstein as cellist, was a little lightweight and toothless by comparison.

Nikolaj Znaider gave a more muscular, yet still refined, performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto after the Anderson work on Saturday. Juanjo Mena, substituting for an indisposed Christoph von Dohnanyi, conducted those pieces deftly and added a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Another concert packed in on Saturday afternoon at Ozawa Hall featured Ken-David Masur conducting the Young Artists Orchestra of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. The reading of Lutoslawski’s difficult and underperformed Concerto for Orchestra was especially notable, with Mr. Masur showing complete command and the students playing at a near-professional level.

Alas, decamping early on Sunday, I had to miss the Boston Symphony concert that afternoon and the final contemporary program, on Monday. But I couldn’t have absorbed much more scintillation just then anyway.

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