John Adams Conducts… John Adams!

21 05 2010
Adams and Leila

Playing the Electric Violin is hard. Make sure the conductor gives you a good shoulder massage after.

It’s rare for me to find modern “classical” music that I like. Some time ago, the National Symphony Orchestra decided to perform a piece called Sacred Crap Heart Explosion before Beethoven’s Ninth, that triggered me to boo for the first time in my entire life at a music event of any kind. So I was reluctant in the extreme to see the Met perform John Adams’ Doctor Atomic in the 2008-2009 season – modern music, bah! Gladly, I was wrong about Doctor Atomic, and despite the Met’s wrong-headed attempt to reduce the “shock” value of hanging a giant nuclear weapon above a baby’s crib, I loved it and picked up John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony pretty much as soon as it came out: “All the music and none of the wailing? What’s not to like!”

On Thursday, I had a chance to watch John Adams conduct the Doctor Atomic Symphony along with three other pieces – the four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Adams’ own Dharma at Big Sur, and Stravinsky’s Feu d’Artifice. I have come to like, but not entirely enjoy, Peter Grimes – having seen it performed twice in as many years now, I’ve felt the music has often played a distant secondary role to the drama of the gritty title character, and it was refreshing to hear to the pieces played separately from the ever present story. It’s a testament to Britten’s talent as a composer that I could hear the discord and the guilt and shame that Grimes carried with him in these instrumental interludes. What did not work so well was Adams’ conducting. Having heard it twice live and several different recordings of it, I found it to be far too slow, bordering on the ponderous. There was also the minor matter of Adams being a bar or more ahead of the orchestra at times – he’d cue a huge and thunderous noise, only to have more than a couple of seconds pass before the orchestra responded. Alas. Where he and the orchestra were in sync, though, the music was magnificent – the third Interlude, Moonlight, was done especially well.

I’ve never heard Dharma at Big Sur before, which appears to have been an accidental oversight – my immediate reaction to hearing it was “I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Indian raga being played on an electric violin before” and I enjoyed almost all of it. I did feel that the work ssstttrrreeetttccchhheeeddd just a wee bit long in part, but I think it’s a tribute to Adams’ skill that he has managed to combine two essentially uncombinable styles of music into a whole that is delightfully light, yet deeply moving. The electric violin solo by Leila Josefowicz fell into the deeply moving portion of the program – and can I just take a second here to note: SQUEAL an ELECTRIC VIOLIN HOW COOL SQUEAL. I think I have a new favourite instrument. Dharma is definitely going on my list of music to buy. After a short intermission came the odd Stravinsky piece which … simply did not fit the program. Feu d’Artifice is short orchestral piece that was conducted perfunctorily and then it was… done. Good. Onwards.

Adams introduced Doctor Atomic Symphony, as he did Dharma by giving some insight and background into why he wrote the piece. He also showed a video from Doctor Atomic‘s signature piece that climaxes Act I, Batter My Heart from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, sung expertly by Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, to give the audience, which seemed to be less than familiar with the opera, a chance to see the piece with lyrics. Herein, I find a problem. I’m trying to describe to you with words how powerful Doctor Atomic Symphony is. Just like the opera before it, the symphony is one of the most terrifying pieces of music I have ever heard and I love it for putting me on the edge. The tension that begins at the end of the third movement that eventually becomes the instrumental Batter My Heart, sent chills down my spine. It is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a musical masterpiece of Lovecraftian horror, the tension palpable in every note. It is truly one of the most remarkable (and listenable!) pieces of music I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. If you haven’t heard it, Nonesuch released it on CD and MP3 last year and I urge you to go buy it or listen to it – or of course, you could go tonight or tomorrow night to hear it played by NSO again.


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