MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Death of Klinghoffer

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Tonight John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer opens at the Met. Here’s the full program as a pdf, including my program note.

And here’s another introductory essay I wrote for the Met.

Filed under: American opera, John Adams, Metropolitan Opera

St. Lawrence String Quartet at 25

SLSQ

One of my favorite string quartets is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a typical overdrive of crative activity. Here’s my recent portrait of the St. Lawrence for Stanford Arts:

“It’s a great time both to be playing in a string quartet and to be writing string quartets,” remarks Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and cofounder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ). He’s thrilled about how both pursuits—those of the recreative performing artist and of the composer who creates from scratch—will be fused in three distinctive ways during the course of the SLSQ’s upcoming season at Bing Concert Hall.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, John Adams, string quartet

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

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Here’s my recent essay for the Metropolitan Opera’s Season Book on the most controversial opera of the season:

Behind the Headlines
In the world of opera, it’s common for a new work to take some time to establish its place in the repertoire. Just think of Così fan tutte, written in 1790 but largely ignored until the mid-20th century, or Les Troyens, which didn’t reach the United States until more than a century after its composition. A generation has passed since the 1991 premiere of John Adams’s second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, but for the most part the work is still known solely by its controversial reputation. Apart from that original production, only two other full stagings have been seen in the U.S., and both of these took place within the past three years (at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2011 and Long Beach Opera in spring 2014).

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Filed under: American opera, John Adams, Metropolitan Opera

Mahler Composing

In this excerpt from John Adams’s review of Jens Malte Fischer’s Mahler biography, it’s intriguing to see what one great composer zeroes in on when describing the creative process of another:

When [Mahler] composed he did it in a white heat, sketching the outlines of his large symphonic forms in a hasty shorthand scrawl, going as fast as his quicksilver mental powers allowed him, usually during all-too-brief summer “vacations” in picturesque alpine settings. A symphony might be composed in the course of one or two of these summer retreats.

But the painstakingly detailed writing out and preparation of performance materials would occupy him for another two or more years before the work would be publicly performed. He was in every sense what we’d now call a control freak. He insisted on conducting all first performances, often treating early rehearsals as a further composing phase, trying out this and that effect on often hapless and confused orchestra members.

His printed scores are full of admonitions to the performers. Musical ideas are marked with emphatic underlinings, accents, and notational and verbal reminders that seem to shout at or plead with the performer to do exactly as the composer wanted. Mahler, long used to dealing with careless or indifferent musicians, appears to have had little faith in the ability of future generations to get his music right.

What would Mahler have thought about his interpreters today? Which ones would have pleased him most — or displeased him least?

Filed under: creativity, John Adams, Mahler

El Niño in Spoleto: Perspectives on the Miraculous

2014ElNino

The Spoleto Festival USA for 2014 just opened with a production of a John Adams masterpiece, El Niño, fully staged by John La Bouchardière. Here’s the essay I wrote for Spoleto’s book:

Is it possible to be touched by a sense of the miraculous today? In our guarded, cynical age, can we feel anything remotely similar to the experience of wonder that was the norm rather than the exception for most of human history?

Just before the turn of the millennium, John Adams began a risky new project to explore art’s power to re-enchant us. El Niño is the intensely beautiful and moving result. It’s a work that offers an unforgettable entrée into his musical world — and one that tends to keep a high position on the favorites list of the composer’s most ardent fans.

“I’m very interested in the dramatic staging of musical works,” says Spoleto Festival USA’s new Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller, “and so I proposed doing El Niño at the Festival. One of the aspects that draws me so strongly to it is how Adams presents different perspectives on such a familiar story. I also love novels written about the same event from many different character perspectives. Adams does something very similar here.” Miller explains that the libretto’s use of other perspectives from Latin American poets to supplement and comment on the biblical narrative of Jesus’ nativity calls for an extraordinary richness of musical perspectives as well: “It resembles a website where you click on a link and are able to continue exploring with more depth. Adams brings up these other references within the basic narrative frame.”

For example, the 20th-century feminist novelist and poet Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974), who came of age in the mountainous country in the south of Mexico, provides the textual source for some of the most psychologically pivotal moments in El Niño. One of these is her poem “Memorial de Tlatelco,” about the killing of hundreds of students by police during a heated political protest in Mexico City in 1968. Adams sets this as the dramatic climax of the second part. This soprano aria forms the dark heart of El Niño, the violent negation of all the hope encompassed by the imagery of birth. “Castellanos brings a grittiness and reality to this story, along with a sense of skepticism, that make the hopefulness the piece attains again have all the more meaning,” says Miller.

The conductor’s love affair with El Niño began when he was invited to prepare the choral forces for a high-profile performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009. Adams himself was on hand as lead conductor. “What he imprinted on me was his incredible attention to each detail of his score,” recalls Miller, “and his over-the-top enthusiasm for each of the characters, coaching the singers in nuances of the Spanish text.”
The prevalence of non-scriptural Spanish sources represents a key to Adams’s vision in El Niño. Working with his longtime artistic collaborator and friend, the director Peter Sellars (to whom El Niño is dedicated), Adams crafted a libretto from pre-existing sources.

Together they worked out a schema to interweave the well-known “plot points” as depicted in the New Testament — the Annunciation and mystery of the virgin birth, Mary’s visitation with her cousin Elisabeth, the humble surroundings of the birth itself, the homage of the Three Wise Men, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt — with folk-like tales from the apocryphal gospels and poetry spanning from the Middle Ages to the 20th century — much of it by Latin American women poets.

By interpolating the voices of these women, Adams and Sellars wanted to add a fresh perspective to the conventional account of the nativity. A retelling of that specific narrative, Adams realized, could simultaneously serve as the basis for far-ranging meditations on the miraculous reality of birth in general. Mary’s experience of pregnancy in El Niño represents the pregnancy of women across time, much as the birth of Jesus figures the birth of all children.

“All of us know the nativity story, but what we don’t see and hear about is a palm tree bending on the command of the Christ child to quench the thirst of his mother,” remarks Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden. “We don’t expect Spanish language poetry from other centuries to suddenly show up the middle of a depiction of the nativity. Through taking up this story John [Adams] is trying to remind us of what redemption means. But it’s a story that is fundamentally incomprehensible to us today in the way that it was for well over a millennium to people.”

An attempt to rekindle the sense of the miraculousness that fuels this story inspired the choices made by Peter Sellars for his inaugural staging of El Niño (which received its world premiere in Paris in December 2000). Sellars’s central concept was to emphasize the everydayness of the characters; their story unfolds in tandem with an accompanying silent film in which Latino actors from Los Angeles re-enacted a contemporary allegory of the Nativity.

“I think Sellars’s idea of a social allegory of outsiders is very valid,” observes Redden, “but we decided on an entirely different approach.” He invited the British stage director John La Bouchardière to develop a full-scale staging for the Memminger Auditorium. Ever since El Niño’s initial unveiling in a theatrically staged context, performances have tended to go in the direction of straightforward concert presentations in the manner of an oratorio — looking back to the role of Handel’s Messiah as an important model for Adams’s conception. This new production by Spoleto Festival USA therefore represents a significant new chapter in the reception history of a major contemporary masterpiece.

“I wanted to push it as far as possible in the other direction of a dramatic staging,” explains La Bouchardière, “whilst accepting the conventions of the piece itself. He points out that this aspect of El Niño; could be confusing to audiences expecting a linear narrative with one-on-one, naturalistic correspondence between the performers and characters. Instead, roles are fluidly exchanged. Both the soprano and mezzo-soprano, for example, represent different aspects of Mary, while the bass-baritone alternately sings the parts of Joseph and Herod and, at one point, even projects the voice of God. “It became important to find a way to play the story that would allow these characters to be consistent.”

La Bouchardière found a solution in his research into medieval miracle plays and didactic religious plays used by Franciscans in the New World (see p. X for director’s note), , providing “vessels” that anchor the biblical characters in a recognizable iconography. “They provide a way of accessing the nativity play through the medieval world — the last period in which miracles were believed in, in which the story was not told as a metaphor,” La Bouchardière elaborates. “John Adams, for example, was brought up to think of religious stories as allegories, and he wrote El Niño as an attempt to understand what is meant by a miracle. In our staging, the subject is not just the story of Jesus’s birth but the story of us and Jesus’s birth. We see the characters onstage reacting to the narrative, as in the Memorial scene itself.”

Redden draws an analogy with our internet age of too-much-information: “To some extent with so many instant answers at our disposal, we’ve lost the excitement and majesty of the unknown. This new production seeks a way not just to make the old familiar story surprising and fresh again but to have it captivate us with that newness as well.”

For Joe Miller, the music Adams has created makes this possible. “El Niño combines a sense of heat — the heat of the street — and pulsation with ingenious orchestration. There is both lyricism and athleticism to the vocal writing, and the music for the countertenors is pointillist. It all conveys a tremendous sense of light and wonder. El Niño is a very 21st-century work because it is so active and alive.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, American opera, John Adams

Dancing to the John Adams Violin Concerto

I was delighted to be able to catch the last of the three New Moves programs at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The series involved an innovative collaboration between the National Symphony Orchestra — playing music by American composers, each program featuring works by living artists — and various dance companies.

The choreographer commissioned for this final program was Jessica Lang, who brought along the nine members of her New York-based company to perform her new piece Scape. Lang explained that of the works on the program, she chose the Violin Concerto from 1993 by John Adams without hesitation as the piece she wanted to choreograph. (The concert’s first half was presented as a standard orchestral performance.)

Both the Sinfonia No. 4 by George Walker, on the first half, and the Adams were the obvious highlights, in my opinion. Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango seemed especially weak and awkward in this company (better suited for a pops concert), while conductor Thomas Wilkins led an auto-pilot reading of Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite.

Still a creative force at 91, George Walker wrote his single-movement Sinfonia No. 4 a couple years ago; the New Jersey Symphony gave the premiere in March 2012. It’s a tightly constructed score that Walker has titled “Strands,” as he told me, because of the “interplay of several melodic and motivic elements that are fused into a mosaic-like texture.” Because the commission was for a relatively short piece, Walker realized he could make a maximal impact by composing a concise one-movement work featuring the density of symphonic thought. The alternative of a “concert opener” or fanfare-type piece held no appeal. Walker adds that “the entire tradition of a one-movement ‘sinfonia’ goes back to the Baroque era, though there’s nothing neoclassical about my writing.”

Several audience members in the post-concert QA wondered whether the violin soloist Leila Josefowicz hadn’t felt upstaged, facing competition, with the dancers carrying on throughout the length of this complex, expansive score. Leila said she was grateful to experience this new dimension of a work she’s played so many times now and in fact envied the audience’s perspective of being able to take in the entirety of the interaction.

Both she and Jessica Lang were beautifully attuned to the Concerto’s many emotional layers. Lang decided at the last minute to make use of the chorister loft space for the opening movement, bringing her dancers down to an extended stage lip in front of the orchestra during the haunting second-movement Chaconne (“Body through which the dream flows”) and cranking up the physical energy to a breathless level to match the music of Adams’s “Toccare.” Especially effective, I thought, was Lang’s focus on abstract interaction with the music, with just a suggestive minimum of narrative clues for the audience to tease out if and as they wished.

(Afterward, Leila spoke a bit about Adams’s upcoming violin-orchestra project, Scheherazade .2 which will be a BIG musical event to look forward to next year.)

Kudos to the NSO and director of artistic planning Nigel Boon for putting together this programming innovation. I hope this won’t end up being a one-off but will inspire similar efforts by the NSO and other institutions.

Filed under: American music, commissions, dance, John Adams

John Adams’s Gospel

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Since my essay is included in this recording, I have to recuse myself from offering a review, but I can say that I consider The Gospel According to the Other Mary among John Adams’s most profound accomplishments. It certainly probes new ground for this ever-evolving, brilliant musical mind.

As for the critical reactions I have seen, nothing yet has come to my attention that seriously grapples with the full complexity of this score.

A curious note: Gospel was among this year’s Pulitzer finalists. I think it’s a safe bet that this year marks the first time two composers sharing the same last name were up for the same prize, which in this case was taken by John Luther Adams for Become Ocean.

If you haven’t had a chance to explore this Adams/Peter Sellars collaboration, do yourself a favor.

Filed under: American music, directors, John Adams, new music, spirituality

No Joke

John Adams; photo (c) Deborah O’Grady

John Adams; photo (c) Deborah O’Grady

On the road: after being in the spotlight in Madrid for the Orquesta Nacional de España’s Carta Bianca Festival, John Adams is being celebrated this week by the Toronto Symphony with the New Creations Festival. The festival culminates on Friday with one of Adams’s most fascinating recent works, Absolute Jest. Here’s the essay I wrote for the original version of Absolute Jest on the occasion of its world premiere by the San Francisco Symphony and the Saint Lawrence String Quartet in 2012:

More than three decades have passed since the San Francisco Symphony gave its first world premiere of music by John Adams (the choral-orchestral Harmonium in 1981). The event marked the beginning of a longstanding relationship between composer and orchestra that has resulted in the commissioning of several landmark works: Adams’s breakthrough orchestral composition, Harmonielehre (a new recording of which the SFS has just been released), El Dorado, the millennial “nativity oratorio” El Niño, the opera A Flowering Tree, and My Father Knew Charles Ives.

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Filed under: American music, essay, John Adams, new music

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