Archive for John Adams

Gershwin, Adams & Rachmaninov

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday) being the last day of (relative) freedom before teaching resumes on Monday I took the opportunity to go to a concert by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera at the splendid St David’s Hall in Cardiff. I had been looking forward to it for some time, as the programme featured two favourite pieces of mine, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances (A Foxtrot for Orchestra), plus one longer piece that I’ve never heard live before, Symphony No. 2 (in E minor) by Sergei Rachmaninov.

There was a good crowd in St David’s last night, not surprisingly given the popularity of the pieces being performed. Conductor for the evening was Frédéric Chaslin, who led the orchestra from the piano during the opening number, Rhapsody in Blue. This is a very famous piece, and is played so often that it is in danger of becoming a bit of a cliché, especially when classical orchestras try too hard to sound like jazz musician; the piece was originally written for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. A case in point is the opening clarinet solo, which is often played like a ham-fisted parody. Not last night, though. Principal clarinettist of WNO Leslie Craven gave a very characterful rendition of the notoriously tricky opening, which seemed to inspire the orchestra into an excellent all-round performance. I particularly enjoyed seeing the cello section slapping the strings of their instruments much as a jazz-era double-bass player would.

Chaslin gave an idiosyncratic account of the piano part, to the extent that in the final solo passage before the finale he departed from the script entirely and interpolated an improvised section all of his own. Not everyone in the audience approved – there were a few tuts behind me – but it’s a piece undoubtedly inspired by jazz, so I don’t see anything wrong with doing this. I thought his ad-libbing was charming, and very witty. What I wasn’t so happy about were the changes in tempo, which were too exaggerated. I suppose conducting from the piano means you can do whatever you want, but I think he took the rubato too far. Some sections rely on strict rhythm for their sense of urgency, and I felt he got bogged down a bit in places. Still, on balance, it was very refreshing to hear an orchestra trying to do something different. Nothing hackneyed about last night’s performance, that’s for sure.

Next one up was The Chairman Dances by John Adams. This isn’t actually in the opera Nixon in China, which is what a lot of people seem to think. It was composed at the same time, but cut out and developed as a standalone concert piece. I posted a recording of this yesterday, so won’t say too much today, except that I thoroughly enjoyed my first live experience of this work. So did the orchestra by the look of it! It’s a hugely entertaining piece and had many in the audience tapping their feet along with it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have minded getting up and dancing along myself..

Special mention has to go the percussion section of the orchestra for doing such an excellent job. The four xylophones were  a delight to listen to, and the drums, temple blocks, triangles and assorted ironmongery coped brilliantly with the intricate polyrhythms.

Then it was the interval, and a glass of wine before returing to savour the main piece of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It’s a remarkable work because it’s not only a “proper” symphony in its construction and development but also the best part of an hour of one glorious melody after another. Rachmaninov’s music is not really very much like Mozart, but they certainly had a similar ear for the Big Tune! I particularly loved the third movement (Adagio), but I thought it was a magnificent performance throughout, not least because you could see how much both conductor and orchestra were enjoying themselves.

The end of the concert was met with rapturous applause from the (normally rather reticent) St Davids audience. Now I have to find the best recording I can of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony so I can enjoy it again. Any suggestions?

Foxtrot for Orchestra

Posted in Music with tags , on January 27, 2012 by telescoper

Sitting in the office at the end of a long week, and looking forward to going to an interesting-sounding concert at St David’s Hall later on. I may get the chance to review it over the weekend, but in the meantime I thought I’d put up this version of one of the pieces I’m going to hear later. I think it’s great but I’ve never heard it live…

Ode to Joy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by telescoper

A very busy week for me ended with a very busy Friday including a postgraduate induction event followed by our annual postgaduate conference. It was actually a very enjoyable day with some really excellent talks by research students about their ongoing projects, but by the end of the afternoon I was definitely flagging.

Fortunately I’d planned a reward at the end of this week in the form of a concert at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales with conductor Thierry Fischer. I bought a group of tickets for myself and some colleagues from work, hoping that it would prove an uplifting experience. We weren’t disappointed.

Before the interval (of which more anon) we heard On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. Written as a response to the events of September 11th  2001, this is an unusual composition involving orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape. Opinions about this piece are generally pretty divided and that also proved to be the case with the half-a-dozen of us who attended last night. All thought the orchestral music was very good indeed, but some found the recorded bits intrusive and the text, which includes phrases from missing-persons posters and memorials posted around Ground Zero to be a mixture of the banal and the mawkish. I wasn’t as negative about these aspects as some seem to have been, but at the same time I didn’t feel the pre-recorded segments actually added very much and they did sometimes make it difficult to hear the subtle textures in the orchestra. And as for the text being “banal”, that seems to me to be entirely the point. It’s the everdayness of loss that makes grief so overwhelming.

Anyway, I thought it was a fascinating  piece and it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen the violin section of an orchestra come on stage with two violins each. Some passages call for altered tunings, so they swapped instruments regularly throughout the performance. The orchestra played wonderfully well, I should say, and the performance was warmly received by the audience.

Then came the interval, during which the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the concert hall. Fortunately it was a sultry evening – we’re in the midst of an early autumn heatwave here –  and it wasn’t at all unpleasant to get a bit of fresh air while they figured out what had caused the alarm.

When we got back in it became obvious that quite a few people had left, possibly because they thought the performance wouldn’t resume. Those that didn’t return missed an absolute treat.

I’m not even going to attempt a description of  Beethoven’s  “Choral” Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Suffice to say that it’s one of the pinnacles of human achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Beethoven was profoundly deaf when it was written. It’s a masterpiece of such dimensions that words are completely unnecessary to describe it, even if one could find words that were appropriate in the first place.  Moreover, I think it’s a piece you really have to hear live for it to really live. Our seats were almost at the front of the stalls, very near the stage and close enough for me to to be able to feel the fortissimo passages through the soles of my feet. Perhaps that’s the only way Beethoven himself ever heard this piece?

And as for last night’s performance, what can I say? The first, Allegro, movement, an entire symphony in itself, found the orchestra at the very peak of its collective prowess. Their playing was passionate and vivid, yet tightly disciplined and the orchestra seemed to be pervaded by a sense that it was an absolute privilege to be playing an undisputed masterpiece. I was so carried away that at the end of that movement an involuntary tear fell from my eye.

I’ll just add one other observation about this piece, concerning the final movement, based around Beethoven’s setting of parts of Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy to which Beethoven himself added some material.  This is so famous that I suspect it’s the only part of the symphony that many people have heard. Hearing it in the context of the entire work, however, makes it all the more dramatic and inspirational. It’s not just that you have to wait so long for the choir (who have been sitting patiently behind the orchestra for three movements) to let rip, but also that you’ve experienced so much wonderful music by the time you get there that the final is virtually guaranteed to leave you completely overwhelmed.

Sincerest thanks to Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales for an absolutely unforgettable experience. Uplifting? Not half!

P.S. The performance was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on October 3rd 2011 in Afternoon on 3  and will presumably be on iPlayer for a week after that. Do listen to it if you get the chance. Even if only a small  fraction of the atmosphere inside St David’s Hall makes its way into the airwaves then it will still be worth a listen..

Never mind the Brahms, hear the Adams.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by telescoper

People keep telling me how wonderful the music of Johannes Brahms is and, although he’s never been a favourite of mine, I’ve always been willing to accept that this was basically down to my ignorance and that I should persevere.

Yesterday I had an opportunity to have another go at Brahms, in the form of a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall which comprised two pieces completely new to me, one of which was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, featuring Lars Vogt. Not knowing anything about the piece beforehand, other than that quite a few people I know told me it was brilliant, I went with as few preconceptions as possible.

This is a much larger work than the typical piano concerto.  Spread over four meaty movements rather than the more usual three, it lasts about 45 minutes and in places it feels more like a symphony which happens to a have a piano part than a piano concerto per se. I think I was expecting something more overtly virtuosic too, and this work isn’t really like that, although it must be hard to play because it requires quite a lot of muscle from time to time. There are passages of great beauty, especially in the elegaic slow (3rd) movement, wherein there is a beautiful singing cello part, and in the swelling orchestral climaxes of the first two movements. The intricate and very artful last movement involves so many different themes coming in an playing off against each other that it’s difficult to keep track.

Conducted by Thierry Fischer, the Orchestra was a bit slow to get into the swing of it and I felt some of the playing early on was a bit flat where it is clearly supposed to be full of heroic grandeur. Perhaps this was partly because of the disappointing attendance – St David’s Hall couldn’t have been half full despite a price of only £20 for stalls seats.

Apart from the slightly disappointing opening, I enjoyed this first part of the concert. A lot, in fact. I certainly found the music impressive in its craftsmanship and vision. But if you ask me if it moved me, I’d have to say no. It left me a bit cold, I’m afraid. I guess Brahms doesn’t really speak my language. On the other hand, this is a piece which probably should be heard more than once to appreciate it fully, as it is rather a lot to take in one go. I’m keen to get a good recording of it so I can do that at home. I’d welcome recommendations through the comments box, in fact, as my personal jury is still out as far as Brahms is concerned.

The second half of the concert was quite a different matter. John Adams wrote  Harmonielehre in 1985, about a hundred years after Brahms composed his second Piano Concerto. The title is taken from a book on musical composition by Arnold Schoenberg. The link between this and the Brahms work is not as tenuous as you might imagine, however, as Schoenberg started his compositional career writing in a late romantic style not so far removed from Brahms. It was only later that he turned to atonalism and, eventually, serialism.

Although its harmonic structure is  complex, and some of the structures Adams uses are similar to those you might find in Schoenberg, at least relatively early on while he was still experimenting,  Harmonielehre is  not really an atonal work. In each sequence the music does hover around a  tonal centre although it times the music strains against its own centre of gravity.

And although he deploys some devices associated with minimalism – insistent, percussive repetition, recurrent motifs, a quasi-static chordal framework and very gradual development and transformation – this isn’t really a minimalist work either.

It’s the fact that it’s so hard to categorize this work that makes it so fascinating and exciting. Other passages seem to echo other composers, especially Gustav Mahler (who died in 1911, the same year that Schoenberg wrote the book Harmonielehre). It’s as if Adams decided to take the end of the romantic period as a starting point but map out a very different route from there to that pioneered by Schoenberg.

If all this sounds very academic then I’m doing a great disservice to the piece. It’s actually a complete blast to listen to, from start to finish. It begins in exhilirating fashion with a thunderous breakneck sequence like a rollercoaster ride that eventually dissolves into a lyrical string theme. The second movement is where the strong echoes of Mahler can be found – there’s also a passage where a solo trumpet plays a lonely theme over disjointed chords which reminded me greatly of Miles Davies and Gil Evans. The last movement is in perfect contrast – fully of energy and exuberance, it ends with thrilling waves of sound crashing and reforming and crashing again. Nothing short of ecstatic.

I went to this concert almost completely preoccupied with the question of whether I would “get” Brahms’ Piano Concerto, but after the finale of Harmonielehre I had almost forgotten Brahms entirely. You could easily tell which piece the musicians enjoyed most too, as there were broad grins and mutual applause all across the stage as they took their bows. This was especially true of the percussionists, who were outnumbered by their instruments – bells, marimbas, xylophones, drums, you name it, so had to run backwards and forwards whenever needed to man the barricades.

The audience loved it too. Bravo.

P.S. The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a future date.


Doctor Atomic

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on March 1, 2009 by telescoper

It’s not often that my interest in Opera overlaps significantly with my career in Physics, but this Saturday night (28th March) was a definite example, with English National Opera‘s production of Doctor Atomic by John Adams providing the opportunity. I even went with a group of six physicists to see it.

The piece is, of course, centred around the personality of J Robert Oppenheimer “The Father of the Atomic Bomb” and is set in Los Alamos in the runup to the first “Trinity” test detonation of an atomic bomb in July 1945. Other physicists feature in the story, especially Edward Teller and Robert Wilson, and images of many more taken from their security passes are projected onto the set at the opening of Scene 1.

According to what I was told, John Adams originally engaged a librettist to write the text for the Opera but this didn’t work out, and a libretto was instead stitched together by Peter Sellars from a variety of sources, including the poetry of John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita, scientific documents, and assorted memoranda from Los Alamos.

This means that the work doesn’t really have a real narrative trajectory, and there is very little in the way of character development, but instead it resolves itself into a series of impressionist tableaux. Rather than attempting to provide the coherence that the libretto lacks through the music, Adams chose to work with what he had and not try to impose a larger structure on it via the score.

The result is fascinating but it’s not without its problems. I greatly admire John Adams’ music, which manages to be both innovative and accessible. There certainly are many places in Doctor Atomic where the music, words and drama come together to make wonderful Opera. Frankly, though, there are also some passages where it gets becalmed, especially in the domestic scenes between Oppenheimer and his wife which didn’t seem to me to add any special insight into the character of either. The Opera ends with the countdown to the detonation of the Trinity Test, but I thought this was also too long, robbing the event of some of its power, although the last moments and the explosion itself were brilliantly done.

This is a new Opera, first performed as recently as 2005 in San Francisco. This production is only the second, as it has moved directly to London from a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Many of the great operas which we now regard as standards went through several iterations before they arrived at their final version. This may happen to Doctor Atomic too. The running time of around three hours is by no means excessive by opera standards, but I do think it would work even better on stage if it were shortened quite a bit and tightened up to remove the longueurs from both acts and focus on building the tension as the test approaches.

I hope all this doesn’t sound too negative. It really is a fascinating and compelling piece. The ending, involving an empty stage and a tape recording of the words of a dying Japanese woman asking for water, moved at least one of our little group to tears.

And of course there’s that aria. At the end of Act 1, just before the interval, Oppenheimer is alone on stage while the prototype bomb is suspended behind him. His thoughts are expressed by the words of a Sonnet Batter my Heart, by John Donne:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Coming back to Cardiff on the train this morning I read a glowing review of Doctor Atomic in the Observer by Fiona Maddocks which referred to this aria as the greatest written since Puccini. I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but it is truly wonderful, especially when sung as it was last night by the flawless Gerald Finley. It also struck me that it has many parallels with, and is as at least as good as, the aria When the Great Bear and Pleiades in Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Whether Doctor Atomic eventually comes to be regarded as a great Opera in the way Peter Grimes has remains to be seen, but I would bet my bottom dollar that this aria will anyway be performed many many times as a concert piece.

Fortunately, though, you don’t have to take my word for how good  it is. Since the Met version of this production has been released on video, I can end with Batter my Heart just as we saw and heard it last night, with John Adams great music stuttering uneasily at the start but taking on a radiant quality as the aria develops. Superb.