Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Adams morphing Beethoven



I hadn't intended to go to the third concert in John Adams's mini-residency with the London Symphony Orchestra, though I'd certainly been bowled over by the first two (review of no.1 here on The Arts Desk). Rare as the programming looked, Copland's Appalachian Spring is one of those pieces to whose charm I'm deaf - diatonicism taken to artificial extremes? - and Elliott Carter remains anathema to me ('how can you be so hard-hearted?' said my concert companion Hen, 'the poor guy died last year'. That was before she heard his Variations for Orchestra).

It was the Adams piece on the programme that I knew I had to hear after the St Lawrence String Quartet's absolutely stunning performance of his String Quartet on Thursday at LSO St Luke's, where the above photo was taken by Kevin Leighton. I need much more time to get to grips with that complex work, probably a masterpiece.


They were very much at the centre of Absolute Jest, first performed last year with Adams's buddy of 30 years Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I think, then, this must have been the UK or even the European premiere, but there was no fanfare about it.

I'm not sure what connection the title has with the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - though I'm attracted to the book from what I've just read about it, to be sure. What's certain is that this has to be one of music's biggest ever scherzos at around 25 minutes. It begins with the pounding dactyls of Beethoven's Scherzo in his Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra takes to semi-minimalist extremes. But the real subjects are the scherzos of late quartets Op. 131 - that weirdest of chatterboxes - and 135, with its manic repetitions.

It was Adams's idea, presumably, to preface his performance by getting the St Lawrences to play the passages in question, along with the slow fugal introduction to Op. 131 which finds itself interlaced with snatches of the Grosse Fuge in a much-needed if hardly easy slackening of all the frantic activity.


Others like my colleague Alexandra on The Arts Desk have raised the question of whether it's a good idea to submit to your own style the music of a giant. After all, most of Stravinsky's stylisations including Pulcinella, a performance of which was one of Adams's inspirations, are based on lesser composers or lesser music. And co-opting one of the supreme masters is different from finding your own music lined up in a concert programme with Beethoven or Brahms (what Adams charmingly calls 'sharing a bed with the big boys'). Well, I bought Absolute Jest for as long as it lasted, in colour and motion the work of a master. The wind-up from the central section was as accomplished as any of Adams's great transitions, and there was a sequence for the quartet players just before the end that absolutely knocked me for six.

This may be where, I later learnt from Tom May's SFSO note as reproduced on JA's compelling if fitful blog Hell Mouth, the composer references the 'Waldstein' Sonata's opening - you can see how exciting that must have been for Adams in his early almost-minimalist phase. One good result is that Adams has turned me back to the late Beethoven quartets, with which I've always struggled, and I begin to hear them more clearly.

More details about Absolute Jest in Adams's four-minute talk filmed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra last year. Good to see he didn't repeat much of this on Sunday.


I can't see that Absolute Jest strikes out for deeper waters and more poignant climes as the first concert persuaded me again that Harmonielehre does, at least in its first movement.

But it is, after all, a scherzo, and Adams's concert sequence had given us a much less approachable Big Boy earlier. As Carter's Variations began their perplexing journey, I could admire the remarkable orchestration even as I resigned myself to not being able to detect the theme the variations were supposed to be tracing. But, like the composer himself in a grisly evening I once experienced of his string quartets where he talked and talked, the piece does go on. And the Neo-Gothic, brass-heavy peroration suffers from a bad case of elephantiasis. Adams writes superbly about his ambivalence towards Carter, and his acquaintance with Copland, too, on the above-mentioned blog, Hell Mouth.

Appalachian Spring passed swiftly and with lively string playing, but the real dazzler was Ives's Country Band March later incorporated into Three Places in New England, a knockout curtain-raiser if ever there was one. And three cheers once again to Adams for three superbly designed concerts. I'm now looking forward to The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Barbican in March, though reports from the Los Angeles premiere have been very mixed.


Back to Bach as promised, and a cantata for Septuagesima which has nothing to do with either of the Gospel readings for the day, one of which is the parable of the workers in the vineyard (as supposedly depicted by Rembrandt above). 'Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn', BWV 92 (1725, Leipzig again) is more preoccupied with the rough seas, winds and eathquakes God sends to test mankind. It's another of those 'total submission to God's will' texts which don't bear too much examination by agnostics like me. But what invention there is here, as usual.

The chorale that runs through the cantata begins in the sopranos against independent lines from strings and two oboes d'amore, especially winsome in thirds that take some unexpected turns. It punctuates the bass's recitative, where the continuo goes darting and plunging off to imitate the 'cracking and fearful crashing' of mountains and the 'great waters' (an excuse for introducing a stormy seascape by Ludolf Bakhuizen below). The turbulence is sustained in whiplash strings forcing an equally strenuous line from the tenor in his aria.


The bass's comparable number dealing with rough winds, this time in the shape of continuo only, sounded unduly blustery in bass Dominik W├Ârner's singing for Masaaki Suzuki; I'm sure there are more convincing ways of performing it. But the soprano's calm pastoral after all these elemental surges is a winner, and quite unlike any other Bach aria I know, the vocal line dancing with a solo oboe d'amore against the most delicate pizzicato strings. After the plain sailing of BWV 72 on Sunday, this was a total treat - and rather militates against the 'short cantatas to help choir beat winter cold' theory since it's half an hour long. 13/3 I'm replacing my original YouTube Leonhardt with the superb Koopman, above all because our (re)New(ed) Best Friend Debbie York, who's been to stay as a result of Facebook re-contact with J, her old fellow Glyndebourne chorus pal (and Queen of Spades dance partner) J. And magic she makes indeed of one of Bach's loveliest arias (around 24'20).

17 comments:

David Damant said...

I have read that earlier centuries Rembrandt was seen as one of several great painters ( or sometimes out of fashion), but now we place him at the Beethoven level, above the others. How can we say that our predecessors were less perceptive than we are? Our eyes and minds are presumably just as influenced by the current cultural forces as were the eyes and minds in previous times. And as a result (?) I was as a teenager tremendously impressed by his Staalmeesters, and thirty years later by his Syndics of the Drapers Company, not realising till a few minutes later that they were the same picture with the title translated. Would a teenager in the 1840s have suffered the same impact? I cannot see any way in which this question can be scientifically answered

David said...

Gosh, quite a tangent, that one. Can you link it to the theme(s) in hand, bearing in mind that the painting has the most tenuous connection with the subject (ie a parable that Bach ignored)?

But we surely don't place Rembrandt actually above Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Vermeer, Manet, Picasso, do we? Whereas Beethoven can only stand as part of the holy trinity with Mozart and Bach (that I'd put Schubert there with those two and not LvB is neither here nor there...)

Susan Scheid said...

This will come in two parts, as blogger doesn't like its length.

Well, I have been eager to get back here the first free moment, and now, a Samad's coffee and bagel in hand (our local purveyor when in the city), I've been having a double feast.

Not long ago, I wrote a friend, in a moment of perhaps irrational exuberance, that Adams is a protean genius. I haven't the basis in musical knowledge for such a statement, but I stand by it nonetheless. Unlike a certain other American composer with whom I share a birthday and who seems to have had three or four small ideas that he recycles endlessly, Adams constantly builds on his storehouse of musical language, pushing the boundaries of what he has already composed to create works that are brilliantly new. (Like you, March will bring me to the concert hall (in NYC, for me) to hear Adams' Gospel of the Other Mary, performed by Dudamel/LA Philharmonic. I, too, have read varying reviews. The most intriguing to me was that by Alex Ross here. Ross’s last sentence is this: “at the age of sixty-five, Adams seems to be entering a new phase, revisiting the danger zones of twentieth-century style, and the first results are astonishing."

I read your colleague’s excellent piece on the Arts Desk with keen interest and have saved it. On her point about going “up against a titan,” while I’m desolate to report I haven’t had a chance to hear Absolute Jest as yet, I couldn’t help but think of Berio and Mahler. I can’t wait for my own chance to hear this piece!

So much more to say and to savor about your report on Adams, but I’ll segway now from your comments on Carter (Oh, dear, forgive me L**d, but this one made me laugh out loud: “That was before she heard his Variations for Orchestra”), and particularly “the piece does go on,” to report on the BritFest at Juilliard.

The program and preceding talk were very, very interesting, and my reactions to it are complex. The FOCUS festival is a wonderful project. This is the first year I’ve been able to attend, and it is an incredible feat. It seems encyclopedic in scope, as it features a remarkable number of recent and current British composers (interestingly, to your question, Max is not among them, so far as I can see). In Tuesday’s concert, the Juilliard students who made up the forces for each piece were outstanding, leading off with harpist Emily Hoile, whom you might recall from Molly Joyce’s piece “Rain in My Head” over on PD. That was a delight, but the Birtwistle piece that was her assignment was not. Nor did I delight in the Bainbridge (Clarinet Quintet), which was next. I am eternally in the process of forming and reforming my views on contemporary classical music, and I make it a point to do everything I can to keep my ears open. That said, I find I am becoming more and more irritated at compositions that insist on fighting with the instruments assigned to play them (worst offender: Lachenmann). This was particularly the case with Birtwistle’s Crowd. With Bainbridge, I would more say, “the piece does go on,” and, for me, on a road to nowhere. As I listened to both, the two words that repeated in my head were “difficult” and “uninteresting.” The sum of those two is “deadly.”

The first half closed with Cardew’s Volo Solo. God knows what was going on musically there (would love to see that “score”), but the phenomenal marimbist and her accompanying double bassist were doing something I realized appeared to be wholly missing from the first two pieces: they were having fun! The marimbist was dancing along, leaping, grinning at points, and the cues between the two showed their mutual delight. I saw her afterward (Saerom Kim—keep an eye out for her) and told her how much fun it was to watch her play. She responded, again with that big grin, “We had fun playing it, too!” Hooray!!!

Susan Scheid said...

After intermission, the story was entirely different. Michael Zev Gordon’s piece (Fragments from a Diary) was a lovely set of fragmentary jewels. I wanted more from the piece, but that, in a way, is the point. His musical ideas and language hold out such hope for what may come from him next (and made me wish it were possible to listen to Bohortha again). So in contrast with the Bainbridge and Birtwistle pieces, Zev Gordon plays to the instruments he chooses, not against them. What is it with these composers who are so opposed to the embrace of beauty? I begin to think it’s because they are afraid that if they do that, they’ll lapse into something unoriginal. Well, all I can say is the protean genius in our midst doesn’t have that problem! OK, end of rant . . .

The last piece was an inventive crowd pleaser by Errollyn Wallen (The girl in my alphabet), for 2 pianos/8 hands. Here, again, the pianists were having such a good time, we couldn’t help but do so, too.

After the concert, I was able to speak with Zev Gordon and thank him for the lovely piece. I let him know, too, that, thanks to you, I’d been tipped off in time to catch Bohortha on BBC Radio 3. You know, his face lit up at that—I think he was astonished that anyone my side of the Atlantic even knew about it. This, to me, is one of the added beauties of listening to the music of living composers. It’s possible to thank them for the gifts they’ve given us. How sad so many pieces of worth pass off into the ether on only one listen. (So I give thanks, once again, that Contemporaneous took it upon itself to record Stream of Stars!)

Now, as for Bach, yet another great entry on the Cantatas. I was particularly amused by your “excuse for introducing a stormy seascape by Ludolf Bakhuizen.” Of course, I had never heard of him, and had reason to marvel once again, at the scope of your knowledge.

PS: re Schubert, who would, I see, complete your triumvirate, I’m very happy to share my birthday with him!

David said...

In two fell swoops, Sue, you have more than atoned for the surprising lack of interest which would seem to have greeted this report on Absolute Jest (I care not for myself, but I do hope people might think, 'I just can't wait to hear that').

But now I'm in Glasgow, in my habitual boutique-y hotel, waiting to meet the godson, get a bite to eat with him and give a half-hour talk on the legacy of Beethoven 5 - which absorbed me more than I expected - before a promising BBC Scottish Symphony/Runnicles programme in the beautiful hall here (JSII Blue Danube Waltz, Berg Violin Concerto with the superb Julian Rachlin, Schubert dances arr. Webern and the Beethoven Big 'Un. Plus Rachlin and Runnicles in an afterconcert Schubert Violin Sonata).

And having spent time writing that, I've left myself no time to chew over all the food for thought here, though I am glad Zev Gordon somewhat redeemed things and I know exactly what you mean by writing against, rather than for, the instrument.

More later/tomorrow.

Susan Scheid said...

One amendment to the earlier two-part comment: Max was included. via Sequentia serpentigena. Tucked away on the reverse side of one of the program pages, so I missed it in leafing through the (superb) program guide for the series.

David Damant said...

Well the addition of the Rembrandt picture was at a tangent so I thought I might be permitted another.......

OK - one can say that these rankings are really not very fruitful, but the point I was trying to make is that taste changes and the rankings ( however made up)also change over time. But how can we view the changes? So much soppy sentimentality at the end of the 19th century (says I, leaping also from twig to twig). How could the bold and confident Victorians hold The Lost Chord in such high regard?

I wonder if Beethoven suffers from being the type of music which cannot be listened to again and again, straight off. Bach can be played for ever, and I know a young singer who sang Monostatos 68 times in a row and could still listen with pleasure to the Flute.

BUT what about the late quartets (LvB)? Could they have been written much much later? Upsetting my point. Or maybe LvB's genius is transendant

Susan Scheid said...

On the subject of transcendent music, the performance of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem J & I heard tonight, from the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, qualified in full. The entire concert was beautifully chosen and performed. Placing Turnage's Ceres right before the Britten was particularly inspired.

Here's the program in full:

MICHAEL TIPPETT Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage (1947/1952)
OLIVER KNUSSEN Horn Concerto (1994)
MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE Ceres (2005)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940)

Heaven-sent, or really, Wigglesworth-sent, for there could be no doubt but that he has this music deep in his bones and knew exactly how to draw his rich understanding of it out of these fine musicians. THIS is what music ought to be, both in composition and performance.

I have no way to judge, but would one consider Sinfonia da Requiem a masterpiece? There were moments when I felt transported by this piece in ways that reminded me of those soul-tearing moments in Mahler.

David said...

David - surely, yes, the late quartets were way ahead of their time and some aspects still elude me. How reassuring, then, to go back to them after hearing Absolute Jest and feel I grasped the outlines better.

It may be a temperamental thing about my problems with a lot of Beethoven - if you believe in such things, astrologically I'm told by one who does that I'm the opposite sign to LvB - but I don't hear the warmth and subtleties we are currently gobsmacked by as we work our way at the City Lit through The Magic Flute. So of course I agree about Mozart and Bach.

Sue - Thanks again for full report and isn't it extraordinary how many pieces DO 'go on and on'. Very few composers writing today have a sense of proportion, even the ones who've written works I admire (Rolf Hind, Anna Clyne to a lesser extent). Or do they get paid by the length?

As for Sinfonia da Requiem, yes, surely it is a masterpiece and - one forgets - a great British symphony to sit alongside Elgar's and some of VW's. The arresting doom beats at the start, the perfect timing of bringing in those stomach-churning chords for trombones answered by flutes, the impeccable climaxes; and in the scherzo, of course, the flashing colours and the sax - Bosch brought to life. Not to mention the transformation in the finale which refuses to leave us on a note of loud optimism, but just fades away.

I'd love to have heard MW conduct it - he always seems to me to go for deep sound and would surely have brought out the Mahler in it. Would make a good programme, incidentally, with the Berg Violin Concerto which I heard done in so visionary a way in Glasgow (now that was a concert sequence too. Anyway, so glad you went. I've not heard the Turnage but most of what he does is so alive. The Met really ought to 'do' Anna Nicole though it might fall flat for the same reasons Enron did...

David Damant said...

Can you explain the "Enron" allusion? I write very modestly as a great expert om accounting and auditing

David said...

Sorry - too lazy to italicise in the comments. I'm referring to Enron the play, which flopped on Broadway having been a smash hit here because apparently Americans didn't like to have the mickey taken out of them. Turnage's entertaining opera Anna Nicole certainly does that.

David Damant said...

O yes..... I remember the play. Yet another example of fiction clouding the analysis of an important aspect of reality - this time, the dreadful manipulation of the capital markets by the Enron people.

Susan Scheid said...

Returning to your comments on Adams, and thinking of David D.'s comment, too, about changing tastes and rankings over time, I am more and more fascinated by how one makes a determination that something is a masterpiece (which I would understand as something that endures as such over time). So, as you dig deeper into Adams's String Quartet, I hope you might come back and say more about what makes it great. I'd greatly value your thoughts on that.

To borrow David D's phrase, I will now leap from twig to twig, for I read a review in the NY Times about the newest Glass opera that said this, "While criticisms of Mr. Glass’s music as cookie-cutter have always been misguided, “The Perfect American” finds him in especially unpredictable form, experimenting with sonorities, textures and pacing" and this, "Phelim McDermott, who a few years ago with Julian Crouch created a vibrant version of Mr. Glass’s 1980 masterpiece, “Satyagraha,” that came to the Metropolitan Opera from the English National Opera in London." I did, as you know, find things to admire in S, notably the last act, but I just don't understand this assessment of his music. It simply bewilders me, yet I have many friends whose opinions I value who share views like those expressed in the review. Will taste over time tell us something new, something closer to the truth, or simply different? But surely, at some point, what is really a masterpiece becomes clear enough?

So, next twig is Turnage. Hmm, not sure anything about Anna Nicole could fall "flat," if you get my drift . . . I am really glad at last to have heard a piece of his. Ever since you mentioned his "acid waltzes" in AN, I've been intrigued. (I still haven't heard them, but will try again to seek them out.) As to his choice of topics, though, while I don't know anything about Enron, in my first foray to follow up on AN, I found I couldn't bear to proceed. I am so averse to the subject matter, in daily life, that I shut it out as completely as I can. Even if his view is satiric, I find I truly can't bear to be reminded of the preoccupations and popularity of the gutter press. Based on Ceres, I will definitely seek out Turnage, though I hold out the probably Quixotic hope that he will turn his talents toward different ends.

David said...

I think you sense the excitement of a new piece at, or close to, its premiere - it's the wanting to go back, to hear it again even if you don't understand. No masterpiece leaves its listeners pallidly saying, 'oh I quite liked that bit' or 'interesting sounds' - the whole is so thrilling that it won't let you rest. Of course the response might be superficially charged and the impact doesn't last. But I'll keep you posted.

I do recommend the DVD of Anna Nicole - the Richard Jones production is so tremendous, the conducting and performances so first-class that even if you don't warm to the piece you'll admire the presentation. Starting-point for listening? Blood on the Floor would be my choice; I'd be surprised if the slower sequences with poignant sax don't bring tears to your eyes. Mind you, I know a trumpeter who just won't play Turnage's music any more, he finds it so strident and so unnecessarily heavy gong - instrument-unfriendly, as we were saying.

Howard Lane said...

Is the title Absolute Jest a portmanteau of Infinite Jest and Immortal Beloved (I'm not sure whether the German "Unsterbliche" has any sense of the Absolute about it)? I for one can't wait to hear it now I've seen Adams' talk you've posted, and also because music that reworks and references other works holds a strange fascination for me, whether neo-classical or such as Berio's Sinfonia or Henze's Il Vitalino Raddoppiato.

I realise I mistakenly attributed a piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage to James MacMillan (doh!) and feel very sheepish for going off on a whole tangent of orchestral/rock music fusion. And feeling that rock music elements introduced into orchestral music can be a minefield, perhaps better left to those with more actual rock and jazz experience, like John Mclaughlin's "Apocalypse", with Michael Tilson Thomas (again) and the LSO, orchestrated by Mike Gibbs.

I still feel that but will look out for more Turnage, as well as MacMillan, and another favourite of mine who fused orchestral and electronic sounds to beautiful effect, Jonathan Harvey.

David Damant said...

There is a scientific defense of astrology - not the claims that you will meet a tall dark man tomorrow, but the claims that the positions of the heavenly bodies influence character. But I have never asked about opposite signs and musical appreciation. I will try to enquire

David Damant said...

I am advised by a virtually professional astrologer that those with opposite signs tend not to get on and indeed tend to dislike each other. He has not seen anything about musical preferences in this context but one can I think easily extrapolate from difficulty with a person to difficulty with the music which springs from his inner personality - as will be the case with great compositions