Orchestral Dreams and Dramas
Portraits of the Composer as a Young Artist and Mature Master: Breakthrough Works by John Adams
Reclaiming tonality: the lesson of Harmonielehre
John Adams, whose residency with the Berliner Philharmoniker throughout 2016/17 begins with this programme, will reach the milestone age of 70 in the middle of the current season (on 15.February). At the same time, Adams exudes a boundlessly youthful energy as he pursues a tireless dual career of composing and conducting. Today’s programme juxtaposes two major works that illustrate his command of orchestral resources and complex long forms: one a preternaturally confident score by the young composer discovering his voice, the other a recent creation by the mature master.
Both classical and vernacular models inspired Adams to seek out a life in music while he was growing up in small-town New England: models from Mozart and Beethoven to Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington. While he was a student at Harvard University in the 1960s, the visceral appeal of the era’s popular music also beckoned with Dionysian urgency. After graduating, Adams decided to abandon the East Coast music establishment and headed West, more certain about what he wanted to avoid than about what he was seeking. He settled in San Francisco, following a meandering path that the young artist himself could hardly have predicted would take him from the motley underground of the Bay Area’s new-music scene in the early 1970s to the discovery of his authentic voice.
Teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory by day, Adams joined with fellow adventurers to preside over musical “happenings” around the City by the Bay (including impromptu concerts in Golden Gate Park and even, once, an eventful evening of music-making amid the ruins of an abandoned hotel). This period of avant-garde trail-and-error eventually led to collaborations with the San Francisco Symphony, which allowed Adams to explore his ideas on a larger scale for orchestral forces. Early in the tenure of Edo de Waart (the orchestra’s music director from 1977 to 1985), Adams was engaged as an advisor on contemporary repertoire, curating a series dubbed “New and Unusual Music.” De Waart commissioned a major work for chorus and orchestra to be premiered during the inaugural season (1980/81) of the San Francisco Symphony’s new performance home at Davies Symphony Hall: Harmonium, in which Adams set the poetry by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. According to Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s artistic advisor at the time, “enormous applause erupted” at the premiere and, on that evening in 1981, “John Adams became, unmistakably, a major figure on our musical landscape.”
Adams was subsequently appointed composer-in-residence with the Symphony (1982 to 1985) — a partnership that served as an important model for programmes that have since become a regular feature with orchestras all around the United States. This residency was designed to culminate in a large-scale orchestral composition, Harmonielehre, whose premiere in 1985 marked another major breakthrough. As often happens in the case of a significant creative advance (with a deadline looming), Harmonielehre was preceded by a lingering sense of crisis and doubt. “Like a baseball player falling deeper and deeper into a self-perpetuating slump,” writes Adams in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, “I began to spend the larger part of my energies analyzing why I could not produce.” He recalls that Arnold Schoenberg, who had come to represent a deeply ambivalent creative father figure, appeared in one of several revealing dreams that ultimately pointed the way towards Harmonielehre. “Despite my respect for and even intimidation by the persona of Schoenberg,” writes Adams, “I felt it only honest to acknowledge that I profoundly disliked the sound of twelve-tone music.”
Indeed, Adam’s title Harmonielehre is an ironic homage to and comment on the Viennese icon’s overarching importance in the debate over tonality. With its multivalent signification encompassing both practical lessons in harmony and a more comprehensive theory of harmony, Harmonielehre was the title Schoenberg himself had chosen for the music textbook he wrote in 1910-1911. As if to help himself make sense of the rejection of traditional tonality he was exploring at the time, Schoenberg’s extensive tome, writes Allen Shawn, combines “philosophical and practical” perspectives. It reads like “a musical workshop in which everything to do with music is taken apart and examined afresh.” For Adams, the word Harmonielehre, as suggested by Schoenberg’s precedent, came to mean “a psychic quest for harmony”. This defines the work’s essential trajectory, and it likewise applies to Adams’s personal creative search during these years, which led him to this “statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future.”
The visionary director Peter Sellars, who has collaborated with the composer on all of his stage works (including The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which will be performed later this season on 26. – 28.1.2017), observes that Adams’s harmonic language is thrilling because it embodies “a genuinely dramatic” sensibility: “It has these incredible sweeps of tension and then goes into astonishing release and then adrenalin-inspired visionary states: that is absolutely what you hope for in theatre.” Indeed, it was not long before he composed Harmonielehre that Adams had first met Sellars, who planted the idea for his debut opera, Nixon in China, the next major Adams work to follow Harmonielehre. The opera’s score develops some aspects of Harmonielehre’s language.
Harmonielehre is symphonic both in formal scope and in its far-ranging, colourful use of a large orchestra. The piece unfolds in a broad three-part design. Characteristically, Adams evolves forms uniquely suited to his musical materials, using an arch form framed by powerful waves of energy for the first (and longest) movement. Stark, violent chords of E minor set the piece in motion. These were prompted by yet another dream, recalls Adams, who was notably influenced by Jungian psychology at the time. This dream involved him watching “a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket.”
Along with its affirmation of tonality, Harmonielehre, according to Adams, represents “a one-of-a-kind, once-only essay in the wedding of fin de siècle chromatic harmonywith the rhythmic and formal procedures of Minimalism.” The “shades of Mahler, Sibelius, and Debussy” — and even of young Schoenberg’s late-Romantic works — hover in this soundscape alongside Minimalist idioms.
Carl Jung also figures in the slower second movement (“The Anfortas Wound”), whose title refers to the wounded knight of the medieval Grail legend. Anfortas here represents a Jungian archetype who “symbolize[s] a condition of sickness of the soul that curses it with a feeling of impotence and depression” (Adams). Minor-key harmonies and lamenting gestures provide the backdrop for a soaring solo trumpet, one of Adams’s signature devices and a sonic emblem of the battlefield’s metaphorical reach inward. A reference to Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony — and, by extension, to a turning point in the golden age of Western tonality — is embedded in the a shattering climax.
In the third and final movement (“Meister Eckhardt & Quackie”), Adams draws on feelings of renewal linked to a dream he had soon after his daughter Emily was born. Nicknamed “Quackie” on account of “the funny, ducklike noise she made as a baby,” Emily appeared in the dream to be riding “perched on the shoulder of the Medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt as they hover among the heavenly bodies like figures painted on the high ceilings of old cathedrals.” References to a gentle lullaby yield to waves of ecstatic momentum in E flat major, an oceanic cry of joy for the creativity that has been liberated.
A modern Scheherazade: John Adams reinvents the violin concerto
John Adams’s omnivorous curiosity helps account for the great distance travelled in the three decades separating Harmoniehre and Scheherazade.2. But one constant is the inherently dramatic sensibility that Peter Sellars had identified in Adams early on and which revitalizes the venerable genre of the concerto in Scheherazade.2. The impetus for the latter, the composer’s second concerto for the violin, was twofold. One involves the American-Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz, who has been playing Adams’s music since the millennium. In her the composer had found an extraordinary interpreter of his First Violin Concerto, which dates from 1993 (one of Adams’s most frequently performed scores), and TheDharma at Big Sur, a concerto for electric violin (2003) which Adams was commissioned to compose for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Like Brahms working with Joseph Joachim (though without PDFs that could easily transmit the latest state of the score via e-mail), Adams regularly asked for Josefowicz’s feedback on the tremendously difficult solo part of Scheherazade.2. As a result, he says the work is “a true collaboration and reflects a creative dialogue that went back and forth for well over a year”. Scheherazade.2 reflects Josefowicz and her musical personality, and the collaboration has continued ever since the world premiere with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert in March 2015: Adams himself and Josefowicz have now performed Scheherazade.2 on more than 20 occasions across the globe — an astonishing immediate “afterlife” for a new composition, let alone one so complex and challenging for performers and audience alike.
The other spur for Scheherazade.2 was a visit to an exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris exploring the history of the Arabian Nights. There, says Adams, his attention was drawn to the “casual brutality” underlying the Scheherazade legend, which is of course the inspiration for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite (1888) of the same name, one of the most popular works in the late-Romantic orchestral repertory. Scheherazade’s story in fact frames the vast collection of folk tales gathered from Middle Eastern and South Asian sources and introduced to Europe in the early 18th century as the Arabian Nights. (The somewhat palindromic alternate title, The 1001 Nights, possibly refers to infinity and thus to the intentional lack of closure that is Scheherazade’s narrative strategy.) Scheherazade is of course a beautiful woman newly married to a vengeful Sultan who vows to have each of his wives slain after their wedding night — his bloodthirsty habit intended as punishment meted out to all women for having once been deceived by a lover. But Scheherazade manages to outwit her husband by entrancing him each night with a new story that ends with a “cliff hanger”, thus playing on his curiosity.
“Every classical music listener is familiar with the outcome, how she survives. But I wonder how many have stopped to ponder that the story itself is really quite horrifying,” Adams remarks. “There is not much to celebrate here when one thinks that she is spared simply because of her cleverness and ability to keep on entertaining her warped, murderous husband.” The Paris exhibit prompted him to imagine what a contemporary Scheherazade might do to cope with her situation. Some notable examples of women facing threats today that came to mind included “the ‘woman in the blue bra’ in Tahrir Square, dragged through the streets, severely beaten, humiliated and physically exposed by enraged, violent men. Or the young Iranian student, Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot to death while attending a peaceful protest in Teheran. Or women routinely attacked and even executed by religious fanatics in any number of countries – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, wherever.” Distressingly, Adams realized that there was no shortage of daily news to remind him of the ongoing oppression and abuse of women – a reality by no means limited to the issue of women’s rights in the Middle East, the composer adds.
This is the sense in which Scheherazade.2 is an “updated version” of the original tale. It is not, Adams points out, intended as a commentary on the Rimsky-Korsakov work. At the same time, the composer expresses frustration over the tendency to reduce Scheherazade.2to a simplistic political message. The problem resembles what happens when a well-known work of programme music is thought to be “explained” according to a literary description – a problem Rimsky-Korsakov himself lamented when it came to his Scheherazade, motivating him to suppress his initial descriptive titles.
Much as Harmonielehre does not require a detailed programme to convey a coherent sense of event, Scheherazade.2 establishes its “narrative” in purely musical terms. “I think Scheherazade.2 has an implied narrative, but it’s also a poetic and dramatic piece of music,” Adams says. For this purpose he fused the model of the Romantic instrumental concerto on the large scale – Scheherazade.2 lasts nearly 50 minutes – with the orchestral idea of a “dramatic symphony”. The latter term Adams adapted for his score from Hector Berlioz, who famously coined it for his own hybrid masterpiece, the “symphonie dramatique” Roméo et Juliette. The result stands apart from the more usual violin concerto repertoire in both ambition and emotional scope. Adams writes with genuinely symphonic complexity for his large orchestra – with the sonority of the cimbalom or hammered dulcimer adding its distinctive flavor – while giving full prominence to the solo violin. He refers to the interchange between these two elements as the “David and Goliath situation” in which the violin’s relatively small voice must be heard against the massive sound generated by the orchestra.
Adams has devised a complex compositional scheme in which the solo violin represents Scheherazade’s character – “a beautiful young woman with grit and personal power” – in a series of open-ended situations loosely suggested by four different “provocative images”. He describes these as “a pursuit by ‘true believers’ [first movement]; a love scene which is both violent and tender (who knows…perhaps her lover is also a woman?) [second movement]; a scene in which she is tried by a court of religious zealots (‘Scheherazade and the Men with Beards’), during which the men argue doctrine among themselves and rage and shout at her only to have her calmly respond to their accusations [third movement]; and a final ‘escape, flight and sanctuary’ which must be the archetypal dream of any woman importuned by a man or men [fourth movement].”
The writing for the soloist, rarely absent from the events, is particularly taxing but also fulfilling, according to Josefowicz (the score’s dedicatee). She compares its demands to those of “an actress preparing for a very serious role. I thought of many strong women throughout the ages, women who have lived in real life as well as fictitious characters. They all gave me inspiration.” For her, “Scheherazade’s character is a wise young woman, wise beyond her years. She was a very independent thinker who will not surrender her thoughts or ideas to any conventional beliefs. A lot of the piece is about her searching, longing, and finding out what she believes and thinks for herself… She stands out as a rebel.”
Adams calls Scheherazade.2 “the closest collaborative undertaking I’ve ever done” and “a creative dialogue” with Josefowicz, to whom he dedicated the score. “I find Leila a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess.”