Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

in the minds of the musicians

life changing epiphany

January 04, 2008

Continued from: on audience perceptions of modern and contemporary music

Like Kevin, I had an Adams epiphany that changed my life. Nearly thirty years ago, I heard the San Francisco Symphony give the first performance of Adams’ “Harmonium,” a setting for chorus and orchestra of poems of John Donne and Emily Dickinson. I consider this piece to be not only one of Adams’ greatest works, but one of the seminal masterpieces of the last half-century. It was especially moving to me because I remember playing some of the early sketches for “Harmonium” on a little battered upright in John’s tiny cottage by the beach in San Francisco: I had no idea that I was witnessing the birth of a major contemporary masterpiece.

What changed my life was not merely the astonishing beauty and power of the music itself, which was unlike any music I’d ever heard, but the fact that it was followed on the second half by a performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. On that dramatic and unforgettable night, I experienced something entirely new to me, but that I would come to experience more than once later in my professional career as a conductor: The reception that Beethoven’s beloved concerto received (played that night by one of the greatest pianists of our time), paled beside the ecstatic cheers and shouts that greeted the conclusion of “Harmonium.” Obviously, there continues to be music written today that is capable of moving and thrilling audiences every bit as much as the canonical masterpieces – sometimes, even more! The Symphony management, understandably, put the Beethoven concerto on the second half of the program, assuming (perhaps correctly) that many listeners would walk out at intermission seeing a major work of new music on the second half. (This is something Adams would experience often as his career burgeoned, and, I believe, still does.) Little did they (or could they) know that in that context, the mighty “Emperor” would seem positively anti-climactic after “Harmonium.”

More recently, I attended one of the first performances of Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic,” based on the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first nuclear tests at Los Alamos. As is the case with many of Adams’ finest works, the music of the opera can be terrifying and brutal at moments, and at others shatteringly beautiful – something that is also true of Beethoven, of course. Oppenheimer’s central aria “Batter my heart” (another setting of John Donne) left me, my wife and many of those around us in tears. The aria is as heart-piercingly gorgeous and as profoundly moving as anything in the greatest operas of Verdi.

All of which is to say that what part of what makes Adams’ best music great is that, (again like Beethoven two centuries before him) he is both masterfully able and unafraid to write in whatever way is necessary for his expressive intentions – by turns tough, tender, dense, transparent, lyrical, grotesque, simple, complex, whimsical, tragic, sublime, vulgar – the whole gamut.

This is something I have found to be the one thing the composers of today whose music moves and thrills me have in common, including not only Kevin Puts (whose new piano concerto I can hardly wait to get my hands on) but all the composers LACO has commissioned through Sound Investment – their lack of a “musico-ideological” agenda, and their willingness to use multiple languages and styles as elements of a compositional vocabulary. In fact, I would venture to say that this is what separates that which is “Contemporary” from that which is “Modern.”

I’ve gone on far too long, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for ending with a couple of quotes on the subject of music both modern and contemporary. As Alex Ross, writing about the history of modern and contemporary music, puts it so poignantly in his new book, ‘The Rest Is Noise,’ “In twentieth-century music, through all the darkness, guilt, misery, and oblivion, the rain of beauty never ended.”

And as Schoenberg himself – who was, if not the father of modernism then unquestionably one if its founding fathers, who was one of the pioneers in exploring the expressive potential of music beyond the bounds of conventional tonality and the man who is often held up as the paragon of “alienating” composers – is alleged to have said, “There is still a lot of good music yet to be written in the key of C major.”

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