By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In some of my very old copies of Britain’s The Gramophone there are reviews of American composers — Bernstein, Copland — that ridicule the very oxymoron. How dare these upstart colonials, wrote the august Compton MacKenzie and his confreres, aspire to the sacred realm of composition, and demand space alongside our beloved Elgar? Even within the last decade, the noted and notable film documentarian Tony Palmer (he of the nine-hour Wagner) was refused BBC support for an Adams documentary that eventually became the superb, privately funded Hail Bop! Times have, apparently, changed; the look of the crowds that pushed into the convoluted precincts of the Barbican and stood in long queues in hopes (usually dashed) of turned-back tickets for concerts, even for pre-concert lectures, was widely spread from collegian to codger. If John Adams is any proof, the American composer has in British eyes advanced from curiosity to superstar.
Adams, 54, is, of course, a special case, a product of great creative skill and exquisite timing. Tarred with the academic rectitude of a Harvard education, he seemed to know when to walk away, and when to blend the sounds of the real world into his acquired rigid Schoenbergian precepts. Academic purity was still the air of choice around 1971, but Adams had already learned to pollute it with alien accents: rock, jazz and the freedoms as preached by John Cage. The 1977 Phrygian Gates, the first music he acknowledges, is also his archetypal minimalist work: 25 minutes of richly colored throb all in one place, broken only near the end by a wrenching shift to somewhere else.
“Minimalism was, for me,” Adams reminisced, “the greatest restorative force from the structures and the abstruse language of, say, Elliott Carter and the tone-row people who were holding music in a death-embrace. It had that freshness, and it was listenable. At the same time, there was this stasis in early Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The music never went anywhere, and I wanted momentum.” That, indeed, is what begins to happen in Adams’ meteoric career: the great swoop down from a holding pattern into a gut-busting outbreak of E-flat in the Grand Pianola Music, which drew boos at its 1983 New York premiere but survives as an early career landmark; the energy explosively uncoiling in twists and turns in the 1992 Chamber Symphony; the great hootenanny that takes over at the end of Hallelujah Junction, the glorious two-piano romp that Adams fashioned in 1998 as a gift to Ernest Fleischmann.
The marvel of Adams — splendidly, exhaustively (and, I have to confess, exhaustingly) surveyed in the Beeb’s 30-hours-plus of music, film and enlightened discussion — is his astonishing gift for combinations, for blending a broad musical vernacular into a bristling newness. It doesn’t always work, of course. Guide to Strange Places, a brand-new 24-minute BBC commission (inspired by a travel book) that ended the weekend, came off as a somewhat drier reworking of the Chamber Symphony’s manic convolutions. Century Rolls, the piano concerto for Emanuel Ax that was played in Los Angeles last season, does tend to roll off the edge.
The Adams outpouring honored a BBC tradition: a weekend in January given over to a single composer, with everything broadcast (most of it live). Last year’s honoree was Alfred Schnittke; Kurt Weill was celebrated the year before. Think of just that for a minute: a nation’s prime radio facility given over to an in-depth exploration of important contemporary creativity. (Could, or would, KUSC? NPR?)
The BBC Symphony is neither a superbly tuned nor an accident-proof orchestra; yet under Slatkin and, in the final concert, Adams himself, it sent some brave and forthright playing out into the acoustically tricky Barbican Hall. And, while I blush for entertaining such thoughts in a hall where Peter Sellars also sat, I found the Klinghoffer as a concert performance, with the chorus delivering its mighty and stirring invocations full-face, a more profound experience than when staged.
Mighty and stirring, to be sure; yet I don’t think I am the only one to carry away and cherish memories as well of smaller sounds during the Barbican’s Adams immersion: the wistful plangence of the clarinet concerto called Gnarly Buttons in Michael Collins’ wonderfully colored performance; the phenomenal depths in Leila Josefowicz’s playing of the Violin Concerto; the deep, lush sorrows in The Wound-Dresser, the haunting Whitman poetry sung by Christopher Maltman; pianist Rolf Hind’s staggering delivery of Phrygian Gates.
One more memory. This one is of the composer before a capacity crowd at a pre-concert talk — dealing, as I remember, with the basic question of what music is, or ought to be:
“Something beautiful,” said John Adams, “that tells the truth.”