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The Adams Family 

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
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There is hope for us yet. In the eight days that began with Golijov‘s St. Mark’s Passion and ended with John Adams‘ Naive and Sentimental Music, it was easy to feel good about music’s future -- about the creation of new music, that is, if not always about its preservation in live performance or recording. Those works begin my current list of reasons for optimism, and the list goes on from there: Kaija Saariaho‘s opera, the other Passion settings introduced at Stuttgart, those young Brits, Germany’s extraordinary Helmut Lachenmann . . .

Adams‘ 48-minute orchestral workout was first played here in 1999 -- by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic, for whom it was written -- and recorded for Nonesuch. What a perfect match, Salonen and this music! Hearing it again at UCLA’s Royce Hall, as the major work in the orchestra‘s first Green Umbrella concert of the season, in a performance measurably more exuberant, richer in detail and momentum -- enhanced by the superior sound at Royce -- you could easily accept it as a portrait of Salonen himself, the wonderful fantasy and coloristic sense he brings to music that truly engages him (including, of course, his own). I’ve written about this work before, and will continue to do so as long as it can still offer new aspects for me to discover -- such as, this time, the sense of constant, immaculately controlled growth in each of the three movements, set in conflict against the music‘s irresistible garrulity. The Philharmonic takes the work to New York in March, along with Adams’ El Niño. I‘ve heard New York audiences boo major works of Adams before; if they do so this time, it’ll be out of sheer envy.

The program at Royce also offered lesser Adams in his two-piano piece Hallelujah Junction, music of great charm but also a fair amount of talky-talk, tidily dispatched by Gloria Cheng and Grant Gershon. In between, for reasons I don‘t quite fathom, came Voices, a time-wasting piece for clarinet and orchestra, with the composer, Derek Bermel, as soloist and Adams conducting. The style is Smartass-Moderne: In the first movement the clarinet and orchestra ”converse“ in Silly Symphony squeaks and squawks; the slow movement affects a serious pose with a textbook-folksy tune over textbook scoring for harp and muted strings; the finale is a gruesome stab at New Orleans honky-tonk. ”Bad Lalo Schifrin,“ whispered a perceptive friend.

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Then there is the other John Adams, an interesting composer (born in Mississippi, now living in Alaska) who has had to take on his middle name -- as John Luther Adams -- in self-defense. For his identity dilemma I have nothing but sympathy; my own namesakes, whose telephone calls I often receive, include an upholsterer, a magician and an actor born -- or so he tells me -- under the name of Benjamin Schultz. On the Cold Blue Music label there are three of this Adams’ landscape pieces, long, sustained harmonies with puffs of arctic winds blowing the sound one way or another: minimalism that makes the other Adams‘ minimal pieces sound downright hyperactive. The music -- as much snow-strewn color as sound (but pleasurable in either guise) -- is beautifully played by local folk, including the Ear Unit’s Amy Knoles, Marty Walker and Robin Lorentz.

ECM‘s Arvo-Part-of-the-month calls itself Orient Occident; add an ampersand and you have the name of the best if shortest work of the three on the disc. Orient & Occident dates from 2000; it consists of a haunted, endless melodic line over a string tone with the same kind of bone-rattling harmony that makes Part’s Fratres an experience disturbing and rewarding. Sweden‘s commendable Tonu Kaljuste conducts all three works, including two for voices and orchestra, the 1984 Pilgrim’s Song for men‘s voices (mostly on a dour monotone) and strings, and a setting of Psalms 42-43 for women’s choir: somewhat chilling, but without the emotional impact of the disc‘s title music. As usual with the noble attention paid by ECM to Part’s music, the very nature of the recorded sound transports you to mysterious northern regions.

I didn‘t write about Hashirigaki after the enchanting performances at UCLA; other blithe spirits here may be better qualified to deal with the songs of the Beach Boys and the dances they seem to have inspired. To me the most fascinating music was the language: three speakersingerdancers of vastly different national origin, imparting to the Beach Boys’ lyrics and Gertrude Stein‘s airborne gibberish a rainbow of coloration through the diversity of accent. For that you can refer to the art of soundman, media alchemist and, yes, composer Heiner Goebbels.

Now there’s an ECM disc of Goebbels‘ Eislermaterial, a strangely moving piece meant as an homage to Hanns Eisler, that sad, sardonic genius who once roamed the streets of Hollywood in search of new aspects of Americana to loathe and enshrine in song. Eisler was Goebbels’ teacher, and his ”material“ is threaded through a dense new background -- the living composer haunted by fragmentary dreams of the composer long dead. The songs are mostly from the years of Eisler‘s exile among us; the texts are by fellow exile Bertolt Brecht. They are flung in our faces -- growled, howled, drenched in vitriol and vinegar -- by Frankfurt’s legendary Ensemble Modern, with the German actor Josef Bierbichler, who might, from the sound of his voice, be 200 years old and possessed of 200 years of wisdom.

Mehli Mehta never seemed to mind that I always referred to him as ”the musical Mehta“; his 94 years had taught him humor and infinite forbearance, even to sharp-tongued critics who deplored the failure of son Zubin to rise to his father‘s level of eloquence. His legacy is the hundreds of players who went forth from his American Youth Symphony -- junior orchestra for senior audiences -- into good jobs with great orchestras in that rewarding if dangerous world.

I didn’t get to his AYS concerts as often as I wanted to; the few times I made it, I was always bowled over by the way those kids played. Last week, at the first of this season‘s Royce Hall concerts (free, kindly note), they took on the Mahler Fifth Symphony, which is hardly pablum for kiddie orchestras. It was a stunning performance; the first horn’s solos, the winds, and, in the well-known adagietto, the strings -- all first-rate. Before the Mahler there was a Mozart symphony, crisp, elegant and beautifully spirited. The conducting was by Alexander Treger, who took over at Mehli‘s retirement four years ago. The smile they imparted to that music was Mehli’s own, perfectly preserved.

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