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Present and Future Shock

Photo by Christine Alicino

WHERE MUSIC CAME FROM, WHERE music stands today, where music is going: lovely questions, these, that nobly sustain motor-mouth moderators of pre-concert "symposiums" and writers of program notes. They were more easily answerable in my younger days. I grew up in an age of definition (or so it seemed): sonata form, rondo form, modulation to the dominant, pop, classical. When my best friend, pianist Normy, showed me he could play boogie-woogie as well as Grieg's Piano Concerto, I felt him the traitor and myself betrayed.

Last night -- driving out to Glendale to hear the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with Thomas Quasthoff singing Bach and Jeffrey Kahane conducting Haydn, in a concert I will try to remember always -- I had John Adams' Naïve and Sentimental Music on the car stereo: a surging, complex interweaving of past and present. This morning I listened over coffee to "Morning Bell," a cut from Amnesiac, Radiohead's latest album, no less complex, its interweaving accomplished electronically rather than by spreading its wealth through the players in a large symphony orchestra, yet beholden to the past in the way its major/minor fluidity seems to echo, say, Mahler. In younger days I would have assumed the need for a cultural wall between the one kind of music and the other. Now I am no longer sure. I am not as qualified to write about Radiohead -- or Moby (whose Play is also in my car stereo player) or Diana Krall, whom I have come to adore -- as I am about John Adams. But I am delighted to discover that, at least, the wall is down.

Naïve and Sentimental Music was introduced by Salonen and the Philharmonic three years ago and recorded for Nonesuch at the time; that recording has finally been released. At 48 minutes' duration, it remains Adams' most extended non-vocal work. After its premiere my words included such adjectives as dazzling, brutal and wrenching. "All three movements," I wrote in 1999 and have no reason to retract, "work their way toward intense climaxes through powerful gatherings of resources. The slow movement is deeply dark and inward, and the outer movements rattle your bones with the splendor of huge performing forces wondrously deployed." The accumulative power at the beginning, the solo flute out in orchestral darkness and the progression from that solo to the massive outburst several minutes later, grabs you and won't let go; it is not -- as I discovered the other night -- conducive to careful driving on the Glendale Freeway.

A YEAR LATER ADAMS PRODUCED EL Niño; that work, too, has been released -- the audio version on Nonesuch, the video on the ArtHaus label distributed by Naxos. (Both Naïve and Sentimental and El Niño are scheduled for the Philharmonic's 2002-03 season.) Both recordings date from the work's December 2000 premiere at the Châtelet in Paris under Kent Nagano's splendid direction. I saw the San Francisco performance a couple of months later.

There are problems here, not so much of Adams' doing, but of a certain ponderousness in the weight of the whole project. The work's premise is to recount the Nativity story as a folktale with contemporary resonances -- most of all its relation to barrio life among impoverished Latinos; poetry by modern Spanish-language writers is interspersed with texts from ancient sources, including narratives from the Apocrypha and other legends about the infant ("El Niño") Jesus and the Holy Family in flight. Peter Sellars' staging, and his accompanying film, picks up on this, with East L.A. standing in for old Bethlehem and the surrounding desert filled with the rocks and flora of Joshua Tree. On the stage the result was a severe sensory overload; on video the two-dimensional screen reduces the problem somewhat but not completely. The haunting, poignant singing of Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Willard White -- whose faces in close-up do carry the drama forward -- are painfully undercut by segues to scenes in latter-day tenement kitchens and rooftops.

I am, therefore, torn. It's nice to have the expressive art of those singers, and of the handsome young members of Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices impersonating annunciating angels and the like, as close as my TV set, but El Niño on video is basically unwatchable. The deep, rich lyricism of Adams' music, however, its eclecticism spread wide but beautifully balanced, makes either version -- with both the CD and the DVD almost identically priced, by the way -- a privilege to own.

The resemblance is coincidental and fascinating: Adams' accounting of Christianity's central epic in terms of Latino-tinged words and music; Osvaldo Golijov doing the same -- in a somewhat more extroverted stage piece -- in his Passion According to Saint Mark, about which I have also previously waxed ecstatic. (That extraordinary work comes to Costa Mesa's Eclectic Orange Festival October 18 and 19; you don't dare not to be there.) By way of teaser, three of its arias ended the last Green Umbrella concert at the Zipper, with the radiant Brazilian mezzo-soprano Luciana Souza on hand to repeat her performance from the work's premiere, joined by soprano Jessica Rivera and the Philharmonic's New Music Group under Yasuo Shinozaki.

Moment by moment, thanks to the recording (on Hänssler) and word of mouth, this music becomes familiar without losing its unique impact. There was other Golijov on the Umbrella program as well, including a Lullaby and Doina for a small ensemble that spun forth 10 minutes of simple beauty, profound and altogether memorable. There was also Marijn Simons, Dutch-born violinist and composer, age 19, who started things off with a half-hour violin concerto called Secret Notes. Who had ever heard of him before? Not you, not I, only the sharp-eared and -eyed Christopher Hailey, who spotted him in Europe and brought him to the Philharmonic's attention.

Wow. Young Marijn puts on a terrific show, with music to match. Someone has groomed him well in the arts of stage flirtation -- with audience and with orchestra. His concerto, three movements with funny names, is all a 19-year-old's showoff piece, but the dazzle is infectious and may even be genuine. You could think back to the cocky young Lenny and write off this newcomer, but you also have to think of the other recent almost-adolescent Thomas Adès, with his Asyla composed at about the same age; that, too, is all prickle and hot sparks, and an undeniable sense of arrogant mastery under it all. The definitions, as I was saying, no longer apply.


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