Reporting from San Francisco
The houselights stayed dim at the start of Monday night’s concert at Davies Symphony Hall for longer than usual, as if to milk the moment for all it was worth. Only a few extra seconds elapsed before Gustavo Dudamel strode on stage to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the sense of anticipation in the concert hall seemed to make those ticking seconds feel like an eternity.
Just as he has bewitched Los Angeles audiences since becoming music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last fall, so the charismatic 28-year-old conductor has quickly brought Bay Area audiences under his spell. A pair of sold-out concerts in San Francisco on Monday and Tuesday evenings marked the launch of Dudamel’s inaugural tour as music director of the Philharmonic — the orchestra’s first national tour in almost a decade. If audience reactions to Monday’s performance are anything to go by, the Philharmonic will be returning home later this month after completing its all-but-sold-out 10-concert journey with eight cities full of Dudamel devotees in its wake.
American composer John Adams appeared on the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, continuing a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center devoted to his music that began with Jennifer Koh’s recital on Sunday. Composers are possibly too close to their own work to know how to treat it objectively, as a conductor must, to obtain the best result. Yet a composer-led performance, precisely because of that subjectivity, can also tell you something unique about what the composer was thinking.
The Adams-on-Adams treatment was applied to “The Wound-Dresser,” a 1988 symphonic setting of Walt Whitman’s recollections of his service as a caregiver to wounded troops in the makeshift Civil War hospitals along Washington’s National Mall. It was not necessarily the work one most wanted to hear from Adams, not least because he also conducted it in a similar program with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The piece can be powerful on first hearing, but after repeated listening its extended elegiac tone can become static. The orchestra played the pulsing chords elegantly, with electronic synthesizer touches recalling the timbre of a glass harmonica. Eric Owens lent a smooth, intense bass-baritone to the vocal part, supported by ghostly violin solos and anguished, disembodied cries from the solo trumpet that strained painfully into the stratosphere.
Timothy Andres grew up listening to Brahms and Beethoven as he studied piano at the Juilliard School’s precollege program. When he enrolled at Yale in 2003, he discovered a new canon. “I gravitated to the, shall we say, stoner hippie types who were listening to really interesting music,” he says. Suddenly Pink Floyd and Brian Eno were on the menu, as were classical minimalists Steve Reich and John Adams.
What began as his senior project at Yale is now his debut album, “Shy and Mighty,” a work for two pianos, to be released May 18 by Nonesuch Records. The composer, 24 years old, says he thinks of his music as architecture. In a piece called “The Night Jaunt,” one piano sets up a spiralling series of chords, while the other piano weaves phrases in lengthening strings.
The composer says his pop inspirations include Scottish electronic act Boards of Canada and Radiohead (“amazing range and sense of space”). The challenge now is to avoid getting lost in the sprawl of his influences: “How can you possibly synthesize all that into something that makes sense? That’s something that I struggle with in my writing every day.”
The composer’s top iTunes plays*
Radiohead 1,157 plays
Brian Eno 964
John Adams 901
J.S. Bach 868
The Beatles 787
The Beta Band 718
Benjamin Britten 676
Arcade Fire 641
*Source: His Last.fm profile
Written by Ronnie Rocket, Classical 2.0 (www.classical20.com)
The recent debate on the influence of classical music on indie rock and vice versa, originally initiated with this post in the excellent Flavorwire (cultural news from the übercool, digital cityguide Flavorpill) and later commented in The Guardian here, seems to have touched an interesting nerve among music buffs. It is always interesting, when artists crossover or show new, surprising sides of their talent. Sometimes, they create a whole new genre, like Rufus Wainwright in recent times with ‘popera’.
For more than 30 years I have followed the developments and firsthanded experienced some defining moments, that are examples of meetings or outright clashes between genres. Karlheinz Stockhausen live with punkrockers in the audience, Balanescu Quartet playing Kraftwerk and releasing records on the esoteric electro-label Mute Records, Elvis Costello performing live in a concert hall with the Brodsky Quartet, Glenn Branca with 100 electric guitars in an auditorium in Rome, and many more.
Inspired by the current discussions, I have put together a list of 20 important events, where the popular music genres of the day, be it jazz, pop or rock meets the established world of classical music. They have since, in their own right, changed the future of music, no less.
1. Miles Davis playing Manuel De Falla on “Sketches of Spain” (1960)
The jazz trumpeter studied at Julliard School of Music (his father let him drop out to pursue a career in jazz). Davis was frustrated about the focus on white, European composers. Later in his career, working with arranger Gil Evans, he went back to the European tradition and quoted references on the landmark ‘Sketches of Spain’ album. Read a review of the album here. He was a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an important inspiration for his late electric period.
2. The Beatles putting Stockhausen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper…” (1967)
Everybody knows that the most famous songwriting couple in the world, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, had their differences. They even could not agree on who discovered the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen first. You can see the archived correspondance about the inclusion of Stockhausen’s face on the Beatles’ album cover here and here and a christmas card John Lennon sent to Stockhausen here and here. Stockhausen himself hated pop music.
3. Walter/Wendy Carlos releases “Switched-On Bach” (1968)
Wendy Carlos not only introduced (and collaborated with Robert Moog) the Moog synthesizer, but did it with music written by the Godfather of classical music, Johan Sebastian Bach. Later, she worked closely with movie director Stanley Kubrick, creating futuristic sounds for the innovative cinematic experiences that would later be regarded as some of the most important movies ever made. However, several of the recordings were rejected by Kubrick. Carlos later released some of these out-takes on two CD’s (1, 2). The introduction of the synthesizer, the adaption of classical music and the soundtrack work for Kubrick were very early experiments connecting popular culture with the classical music world.
4. Stanley Kubrick introducing György Ligeti on the “2001: A Space Odyssey” soundtrack (1968)
The film introduced the avantgarde composer György Ligeti to a wide public. Ligeti’s Requiem (the Kyrie section) and Atmosphères act as recurring leitmotifs in the film’s storyline. Other music used is Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and an electronically altered form of his Aventures, the last of which was so used without Ligeti’s permission.
5. Ornette Coleman writing “Skies of America” for orchestra (1972)
Skies of America is a third-stream composition, meaning that it encompasses parts of traditional classical music and parts of contemporary jazz. This work was meant to be a collaboration of a full orchestra, in this case the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by David Measham) with Coleman’s quartet, but conflicts with the musicians’ union in Britain forced the quartet players from the recording. Skies of America is Coleman’s epic “harmolodic manifesto.” Read a review of the reissue here.
6. Electric Light Orchestra’s first single (1972)
“10538 Overture”, released in 1972, was the first single by Electric Light Orchestra. 15 overdubbed, cheap Chinese cellos played by the legendary Roy Woods creates a new sound, that became part glam rock, part symphonic rock.
7. Brian Eno & Obscure Records (1975)
Ex-Roxy Music glamrocker was instrumental in introducing classical music to the rock world. The 10-album series issued on the Obscure Records label introduced an unsuspecting audience to Gavin Bryars, John Adams, Michael Nyman and more. Not since the Beatles album have a single act had such an influence on exposing classical composers to a ‘rock’ audience.
8. Manfred Eicher from ECM Records releasing Steve Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians” (1976/1978)
The Bavarian record producer Manfred Eicher had already established one of the most innovative records companies ECM Records, releasing records with Keith Jarrett and Art Ensemble of Chicago among many others. Early on, he began expanding into and focusing on so-called classical music and released several records with Steve Reich reaching a new, more mainstream audience. These releases eventually became the platform for the ECM New Series, a sub-label and a ‘market leader’ in contemporary music today.
9. The soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980)
György Ligeti (again) and Krzysztof Penderecki‘s music introduced to a massive audience in a soundtrack to a popular horror movie earning almost 100 million dollars was a major breakthrough for contemporary classical music into pop culture and the hard-to-find soundtrack is still a favourite in the indie crowd today.
10. Glenn Branca writing symphonies for electric guitars, like “Symphony No. 1”, and releasing them on underground cassette tape labels! (1981)
Music from the pioneering no-wave artist, Mr. Glenn Branca – here making a modern classical masterpiece with four guitar parts, including axe-man Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth:
Here is a clip from the Rome performance of “Hallucination City: A Symphony for 100 electric guitars”:
Part Two of this article will be posted here next week – stay tuned for 10 more groundbreaking moments in the grey area of popular and classical music!
On a personal note, I would like to add that I am promoting a chamber music concert in Copenhagen next week, where the programme goes from baroque, impressionism and modern to contemporary 20th century and completely new music including a version of Kraftwerk’s “Die Roboter” arranged for treated piano and amplified cello thrown in for good measure. The music is performed by Eriko Makimura & Co. More information about this special event here.
Before I’m away for a week, a belated catchup with a good post over at flavorwire.com (thanks to Peter Meanwell, breakfast researcher, Ligeti and ukulele fanatic, and Radio 3 producer, for alerting me to it) on the links between today’s indie scene and yesterday’s – well, and today’s – classical composers. Max Willens has come up with a quixotic concatenation of influences, from echoes of Stockhausen in a recent album from Dirty Projectors, John Adams’s subliminal inspiration on Owen Pallett and Arvo Pärt’s effect on Radiohead.
This week, two proud mavericks of American music—Meredith Monk and John Luther Adams—will edge a little more into the mainstream. Monk, whom I wrote about last fall, is at the St. Louis Symphony, presiding over the première of a yet-to-be-titled work for singers and orchestra. In recent years, Monk, whose work has long defied categorization, has been identifying more strongly with the classical world, although her methods remain unorthodox, as she recounts in an interview with Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Monk has had difficulty deciding on a title, and David Robertson will announce her final choice from the stage. And in a concert tonight at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Monk will sing several of her shorter pieces on program that also includes Steve Reich’s “Violin Phase,” John Cage’s “Litany for the Whale,” and Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes” (presently resounding through several thousand American movie theaters as part of the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”).
As for Adams, his wide-open Alaskan soundscapes are about to descend on the urban jungles of New York and Chicago. On Sunday night, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble plays “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” and “The Farthest Place,” at (Le) Poisson Rouge, alongside works of Kevin Volans; on Monday night, the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series presents “Qilyaun,” “for Jim (rising),” and “…and bells remembered…,” alongside works of Osvaldo Golijov. Adams will receive even higher-profile performances next October, when the American Composers Orchestra essays “The Light Within,” at Carnegie Hall, and the Chicago Symphony unleashes his beautifully forbidding orchestral piece “Dark Waves,” with Jaap van Zweden conducting. You can hear a recording of the world premiere of “Dark Waves” at the tail end of my 2008 Profile of Adams.
The intimations of both Ravel and Stravinsky in Colin Matthews’ opulent orchestrations of Debussy’s gusty Preludes “The Wind in the Plain” and “What the West Wind Saw” made for a quite incestuous feel to this the second of John Adams’ cunningly devised concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. All five composers cross-fertilised in interesting ways.
Matthews’ take on the Debussy Preludes was governed by a desire to make them as orchestral in texture and as far removed from the piano as was conceivably possible. It’s what the best orchestral transcriptions always do and why Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at times feels as though the plainer piano original came after and not before. Flickers of “Gnomus” and “Baba Yaga” breezed through the Matthews, the headiness of Ravelian rather than Debussian colours making for an exotic palette.
Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales then generated their own turbulence, the sort produced by sensuous swirling bodies. The problem was, though, that Adams, the conductor, slightly short-changed us on the swoon and salivation of these hedonistic morsels, failing to exploit through phrasing and rubato the full variety of pleasure that they offer. In short, they were rather stiffly, uniformly, despatched.
It took me years to find [Radio 3] the [pop radio] station remotely penetrable. For a long while I had no patience, my laziness supported by the thought that just because classical music – and world music, and jazz, and folk, all played on the station – existed didn’t mean I had a duty to listen to it. But music is music: if you love music you will find something to love about almost any music. It just takes time. In the last fortnight I’ve attended, and loved, two classical performances: Satyagraha, a Philip Glass opera about Gandhi; and one by the London Symphony Orchestra, which featured Glass’s fellow American minimalist composer John Adams conducting his own work and that of Benjamin Britten.
It’s through the music of Glass, Adams and Steve Reich, in particular, that many rock fans have found a way into the fear-inducing labyrinth of classical music, through their use of forms and themes, both musical and topical, that seem to form a bridge between the genres. Jazz is often the halfway point at which even adventurous classical and rock listeners stop, and go no further, with their musical explorations. The former look to jazz for its rigour; the latter for its apparent anarchy.
What you get with minimalism, however, is the chance to listen to little motifs, over and over as you would with a pop chorus or riff, changing and swelling with time. As with any relationship you have in life, it repays the investment of listening well. You can do that with pop music, too, but only if you regard quality as something that is detectable, and appreciable, across the board.
As a subject for books, plays and films, Nixon, who died in 1994, remains ever fascinating. China, of course, has been ever on our minds. But the [John Adams] opera [Nixon in China] faded from the limelight, remaining on the fringes. Over the past two decades it has had the occasional small-scale production in Europe, along with a mounting by English National Opera in London of Sellars’ production, which proved a surprise hit. As far as Nixon’s homeland has been concerned, we’ve been stuck with the trivial, jokey production by James Robinson, first given by Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2004 and since making the rounds of several, mostly midsized, American companies, such as Opera Colorado, Chicago Opera Theatre and Portland Opera.