When on Saturday night, a music teacher returned to his old school
three decades later, the brilliant concert that took place exceeded
all expectations of such an occasion. More than a sentimental reunion
or a dutiful observance of the passage of time, this was a poignant and
powerful musical love fest, some of the teacher's finest and most complex
music performed with startling excellence by a new generation of students.
John Adams, who taught composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of
Music from 1972 to 1983, has gone on to produce symphonic music and opera
acclaimed around the world. Once dismissed by some as "just one of the
Minimalists," Adams is accepted today as one of the most important living
composers. Not only has the world come to really hear, appreciate, and
applaud his music, but - as tonight proved - the new generation of
students has developed the ability to play his most demanding works as
Adams himself gave an indication of what was to happen in the Conservatory
Concert Hall when in a brief address he said that although the 1978
"Shaker Loops" was written back then for students, he had no idea when
writing "Harmonielehre" for the San Francisco Symphony in 1985 that a
student orchestra would perform this huge, difficult piece. Listening
to rehearsals, and observing today's level of student performances during
his week-long residency at the Conservatory, Adams said, was a "moving
The concert that followed exceeded even that high praise. With a few
minor exceptions - such as some unintended "shakiness" at the intricate
end of "Shaker Loops" - the students gave professional and gripping
performances of both pieces, "Shaker Loops" conducted by Adams,
"Harmonielehre" by Andrew Mogrelia.
Adams, always unselfconsciously self-deprecating, introduced "Shaker
Loops" as a "triumph of inspiration over lack of technique." The 24-minute
work for seven string instrument, marking one of the first successful
departures from the soulless days of Minimalism, was written at a time,
Adams said, "when I didn't know anything about strings." He had a "couple
of ideas," he said, "and that can get you a long way in Minimalism." At
first, he just tried some "modules, a la Terry Riley," but it all sounded
"lumpy," and then he "wrote out the whole piece," and it started to take
shape. Describing a passage as "glass-like," Adams fell a beat behind
the earliest laughter in the audience before motioning with his hand
that he meant "that kind of glass."
I don't know when it happened (and my memories a few years back indicate
otherwise), but Adams has also become a sensitive, effective conductor.
He and the seven - violinists Daniel Jang, Tao Zhang, Leonie Bot; violist
Alexa Beattie; cellists Jeremiah Campbell and Erin Wang; bassist Matthew
Washburn - gave the most fluid and involving performance among the dozen
times I heard the piece.
"Shaker Loops" is a transparent miniature, "Harmonielehre" is a dense,
overwhelming orchestral storm. I don't know how the Conservatory Orchestra
channeled the Berlin Philharmonic in performing this 40-minute aural
space journey, but they sure did. He wrote it eight years after "Shaker
Loops" and no longer handicapped by lack of technique, Adams said, with
an understatement par excellence. "This was something I could do only
once, taking from Debussy, Wagner, Sibelius - the music we all love -
and putting it into the black box of Minimalism."
Neither that, nor the elaborate explanations Adams has given for the
origin of the work does it justice. When heard in such near-flawless,
broad (rather than too-loud) performance, with Zachary Goodman's trumpet
solo, and strings moving as one (in the manner of another youth orchestra,
the Simon Bolivar), Minimalism or Adams' preoccupation with the Jungian
theory of the Amfortas Wound (in the brooding, fearsome second movement)
are of no importance. "Harmonielehre" is simply enjoyable, repeatable
(my seventh or eighth outing), great symphonic music.
With Schoenberg's 1911 "Book of Harmony" as his point of departure,
Adams' purpose with "Harmonielehre" was to act on his "profound dislike
for 12-tone music," which Schoenberg developed after compiling the huge
textbook on tonal harmony. Here, theory, intent, and the power of
"Harmonielehre" do coincide: Adams did in fact offer an alternative, a
Adams has denounced Schoenberg's aesthetic as "an over-ripening of 19th
century individualism, one in which the composer was a god of sorts, to
which the litener would come as if to a sacramental altar... and so the
`agony of modern music' had been born." The result: "aural ugliness" and
"rapidly shrinking classical music audiences" in the 20th century.
Adams uses early Schoenberg against the late one - of all the musical
quotations in "Harmonielehre" the most prominent is the gentle tinkling
opening passage of the 1900 "Gurrelieder," used by Adams at the beginning
of the third movement, "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie" (a title accurately
described by the composer as "Zappa-esque").
But the glory of "Harmonielehre" is the untitled, monumental first
movement, which "marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with
the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siecle late Romanticism."
Beyond intent and analysis, there is the music - speaking for itself,
carrying the listener away. In the well-disciplined, academic environment
Saturday night, there was no applause at the big-bang fortissimo finale
of the first movement... except a single, very loud, rock-concert yell:
I don't recommend sitting directly behind the composer at a concert where
his work is performed - you can't help being aware of his response to
the music instead of concentrating on your own - but at the "WHOA!"
moment, I was glad to be able to watch Adams' reaction to this raw
emotion. The composer grinned, ear to ear.
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