Tanglewood Music Center – the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer program for young performers and composers - has been home to a Who’s Who of 20th … and now 21st … century music: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Augusta Read Thomas.
This summer the TMC, as it’s known, has been celebrating its 75th anniversary.
In 1940, while Europe was at war, Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, began what can only be called an optimistic endeavor.
He convinced his colleagues to open a tuition-free music school for talented conservatory graduates in the orchestra’s summer home. But two years later, it almost came to an end says Jeremy Eichler, chief music critic for The Boston Globe.
"The BSO trustees wanted to close the school because of the war and Koussevitzky was outraged and wrote a letter calling it an 'act of artistic vandalism.' And said, 'precisely now is the time when the world needs to be hearing this music,'” he said.
Sounds of the time
To head the new school, Koussevitzky chose composer Aaron Copland, says the TMC’s current director, Ellen Highstein.
"In establishing Aaron Copland as the head of the school – not as the head of composition, but the head of the school – he was making a very specific statement," she explained.
"That it all starts with music’s creators and that one must absorb the creation and the immediate dissemination of new work, as part of the DNA of what makes good musicians good musicians," said Highstein. "And I think he felt very strongly that paying attention to the music of one’s own time is the way to ensure that there will be a future."
The first head of the composition department was a refugee from Europe: Paul Hindemith. And right from the start, they decided that what was then called the Berkshire Music Center would be a place for commissioning new work. Their first premiere was American composer Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia.” The piece has opened the program every summer since.
A place for premiering and writing new works
Over the years, the Tanglewood Music Center’s young instrumentalists, vocalists, and conductors have performed many distinguished new works: from the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes to the world premiere of Ainadamar, by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. And this year, for its 75th anniversary, the TMC has commissioned 34 new pieces.
Michael Gandolfi, who co-chairs the composition department, wrote a piece inspired by Lewis Carroll for another teacher, singer Dawn Upshaw, and some of the fellows to perform.
"The idea for a lot of these commissions was to involve the faculty as well as the fellows, so that we get a flavor of both and it’s a great experience for everyone," he said.
It's also an intense experience, says Nathan Shields, one of six composers in the program.
"In the first week, for three days in a row, we were told to write a piece every day," he said. "And so we would sit down with Michael Gandolfi at 10 o’clock in the morning and he would give us our instrumentation for the day. He said 'Today you’re writing a piece for violin and viola. Go!' And we had to have that into him by 10 o’clock the next morning. At which point, he gave us a new instrumentation." Shields admits it was sort of exhilarating to know that he could do it.
The TMC composition fellows got to meet many of the commissioned composers both formally and informally. And Shields says new music and those who write it and perform it are still at the center of the TMC’s mission, 75 years after its founding.