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Jerry Bowles
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Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Last Night in L.A. - Turning Off the Jukebox

The Minimalist Jukebox ended Sunday with the final performances of the last program, the last of three performances of minimalism (and post-minimalism) written for full symphonic orchestra rather than for ensembles or chamber groups. Full orchestra means Philip Glass, composer of eight symphonies and as many concertos. But instead of doing two or three of those, the Phil (and John Adams, curator of the festival) gave us a surprise by opening the concert with extracts from one of Glass's operas (he�s written ten of those, as many as Puccini, but Glass� additional chamber operas clearly make him one of history�s prolific opera composers). We heard the prelude and three scenes from Glass� opera Akhnaten (1984) for the orchestra (without violins), the full Master Chorale, four male soloists and narrator. I�ve never seen the opera but I thought I knew what to expect. I was surprised. Clips from every track of the full recording are available here, but the sound is pallid compared to what we heard.

Following the long prelude, with narrator proclaiming three verses translated from ancient Egyptian texts, moving to the funeral procession of the preceding pharaoh, the most powerful piece by Philip Glass I can recall hearing, with strong percussion, strong choral lines, and a powerful bass singing lines from the Book of the Dead (in Egyptian). This was followed by the Hymn sung by Akhnaten (countertenor), one of Glass� most beautiful songs. (The sound clip gives only the prelude to the scene.) For the conclusion, the full orchestra, chorus and three soloists did the music from the Attack and Fall (lyrics from the Tell El-Amarna tablets, sung in Akkadian), another powerful scene. John Adams was conducting and while he isn�t the most accomplished conductor, he brought out the emotions, the strength, the power of the music. If you thought minimalism was passive, placid, and pleasant -- rather boring, in fact � this was a performance to hear, and I hope some of the directors and sponsors of Los Angeles Opera were there to hear it.

The second half of the concert was given to John Adams� Harmonielehre (1984-1985). This isn�t �minimalism� at all, but it is an enjoyable work and it held its own against the Akhnaten. We complain today when critics seem reluctant to appreciate contemporary music, but there has been a little progress. For the fun of it, let�s look at the first review in the New York Times of Harmonielehre, given by a reviewer still demonstrating his musical appreciation and insight in the paper: [names aren�t necessary]:
"Harmonielehre" jars our expectations in that it ''looks'' like a Romantic work but does not behave like one. Sonata form and its offshoots make us passengers of sorts, riders seated to the rear who follow musical ideas as they move from place to place, growing, shrinking, transforming themselves in the process. Mr. Adams's piece, on the other hand, goes nowhere. Neither does it evolve from a center outward. Indeed, we come upon it as a stationary object - anchored, already complete but incompletely perceived, seen only in outline and from a single angle. We hear first the music's repetitive heartbeats and its rhythmic mutations, but it is only as we gradually circle this object that its finer details are revealed - the rippling triadic figures, the little slivers of wind color, the mallet percussion detail, the timpani which booms out loudly when it arrives in view. Even the long Mahlerian violin melodies seem directionless, spinning out but then circling back to their beginnings.

Given that review, you could expect future audiences to be quite free to doubt the musical worth of the piece. And here�s the review of the first performance by the New York Philharmonic:
Mr. Adams, whose "Harmonielehre" was performed last evening by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Slatkin's direction, is reputed to be one of the movers [of minimalism], even though at times one would have been hard pressed to notice movement of any sort in this 40-minute, three-movement work. Things start off unpromisingly, with an insistent clanging and steady pulsations that sound like a large modern orchestra imitating a Balinese gamelan. In the long opening movement, Mr. Adams works over a few ideas with great economy and no little craft, though the musical effect is ultimately to make little out of little. In the true Minimalist style, he provides an underlay of slowly shifting harmonic patterns and then superimposes lines that might become melodic if they were meant to go anywhere. At no time does the work present difficulties to the listener, even at first hearing. In this score, at any rate, Mr. Adams is not in the business of antagonizing or disturbing anyone. It was all the more puzzling, then, to see Philharmonic subscribers leaving throughout the performance. [snip] [In the second movement] the purposeful stress on what used to be known to composers as padding [ouch] is made considerably less apparent and something surprisingly like a conventional melodic profile emerges. For dozens of bars at a stretch one might be listening to a lugubrious tone poem by, say, Rachmaninoff.

You don�t have to believe that Adams is our greatest composer or that Harmonielehre is his best work to be surprised at how professional critics, men who have studied music and earned a livelihood writing about it, could find this music so unappealing. Reviews like this give an audience the way to hear the music: it�s not very good; it doesn�t do anything; it doesn�t have direction or purpose; why waste your time.

Our Philharmonic audience has grown to like the music of John Adams quite well, thank you. They really liked the concert, both halves of the concert. It was a very enjoyable ending to our Minimalist Jukebox.

Let me try to generate a few summary thoughts about the festival. First, what made this set of concerts so important was not that Los Angeles was the first to have a series of concerts devoted to minimalism in its various incarnations, nor that we were hearing some major works for the first time; similar festivals have been given, and at least New York has provided venues for many more hearings of the individual works. Instead, I think this festival was important because it was organized and sponsored by the city�s major music institution, willing to serve as a leader in saying that this contemporary music is good -- and that it is important. The Phil brought in guest conductors and guest artists selected to show the music in the best way possible; these were not cut-rate productions with available, though hard-working, musicians (aside from the 100 electric guitars). The festival brought new listeners into the seats of Disney Hall.

The festival sold tickets, so that we didn�t have half-empty halls for contemporary work. In addition to exposing some new people to concerts they seemed to like, the festival exposed new works and unfamiliar composers to its present ticket base and its present donor base. In the course of two weeks, a dozen different composers were given good performances in the best venue with some of the best musicians before large, paying audiences. It�s true that for some concerts the subscriber base stayed away in droves (leaving good seats for the new buyers), but all of the concerts were treated with respect and praise by the media. Finally, the new initiative of releasing recordings from live performances, and starting with contemporary music, could be very important. I hope the Phil�s new Vice President of Artistic Planning is beginning to think of ideas for 2008.

I thought it was a shame that the festival organizers could not have found a way to include at least one work by La Monte Young, the most notable absentee from the lists. I also wish that the works of Philip Glass had been given greater prominence, which I think they deserve. I don�t know whether or not it signifies anything, but I was struck by the white male dominance of the volunteer musicians in the Branca. I could see only five females, and I saw no more obviously female names in the list of participants. I could see no African-Americans, perhaps five Hispanic-Americans, and perhaps five Asian-Pacific Americans. Is that representative?

New subject, briefly. Grendel, the new opera by Elliot Goldenthal -- with staging by Julie Taymor and libretto by Taymor and J.D. McClatchy -- is the subject of an essay in the April issue of Smithsonian. The opera will have its premiere by Los Angeles Opera in May and will go to Lincoln Center in July.


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