Since I'm so behind with updating this Beast I'm going to do a twofer here, which is appropriate because the concerts I'm writing about are part of the San Francisco Symphony's Project San Francisco program featuring the work of John Adams. Last Thursday night Chad Newsome and I experienced the return of El Niño. Tonight the Femme Fatale and I heard a miraculous Harmonielehre. Had I not been flying down to LA the next night I would have definitely returned to hear El Niño again. Since I have no plans this Friday I've decided to hear Harmonielehre again. Yes, it's that good- get yourself a ticket and get ready to be spellbound.
I'd never heard Harmonielehre performed live before, which is to say that since I live in an apartment and respect my neighbors I've never really heard it at all. It's loud. It's thunderous. It's like the vision which inspired Adams- a tanker steaming full speed ahead through the Bay that all of a sudden becomes airborne. I was recently thinking about all of those people shelling out $275 to see Roger Waters perform The Wall (sorry folks- I saw it twice in 1980- accept no David Gilmore-less substitutes) - they could have attended this for a fraction of the cost and heard some much better music that rocks equally hard.
Harmonielehre is around forty minutes long is broken into three movements. The first, which is untitled, begins with an extremely loud (the orchestra for this piece is huge), propulsive fit of rhythm wherein Adams acknowledges his minimalist tendencies of his past and decides to completely blow it off- and blow it up. Deeply absorbing the work of Sibelius strained through Glass, Riech and Cage, there are hypnotic repetitions which eventually dissolve into something slower, more meditative, without ever really letting go of the idea that harmony is something that can be felt as well as heard. How Tilson-Thomas kept the orchestra so in tune, so perfectly synchronized, was something of a small miracle here.
The second movement, called "The Anfortas Wound," refers not to a stab in the side, but one to the balls which won't heal. And it hurts. Starting slowly, it builds into an agonizing climax so involving that MTT got so caught up in it he smacked his baton against the score and the stick went flying behind him into the front row, causing him to lose his place in the score and for a moment he was furiously flipping pages back and forth to find his place while never losing control of the orchestra. MTT- nicely done! Never let them see you sweat!
The third part is entitled "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie." I'm not going to explain what that means- read the program notes before it begins for an explanation- but halfway through this part is where the realization struck me, becoming that involuntary "wow" moment where one realizes that what's unfolding in front of you, what you're hearing, is something unique and special, putting an involuntary smile on your face which stays stuck there for the rest of the piece. The massive violin section is playing at full-bore, the horns are just fucking phenomenal and the percussion section is pounding it out like they're John Bonham.
You want to know more? There are three more performances.
The first half of the concert was good, but rendered almost meaningless by what followed. The orchestra performed Henry Cowell's modernist Synchrony, which gave trumpeter Mark Inouye some really shining moments and ends in a kind of Dies Irae/Scary Monster Music climax, followed by the fresh air of Mozart's 5th Violin Concerto, in which the always entertaining Gil Shaham was the soloist. The Mozart was a bit brisk for my liking, and Shaham did his impish "I'm a part of everything" bit as he shamelessly mugged for MTT, the orchestra and the audience by turns. I think next year he'll be onstage with Jeremy Denk and the girl who plays the cello like she's Pete Townsend in Beethoven's Triple Concerto. I'll see it just to see who falls off the stage first as they try to out-do one another in histrionics. It will be Bring it On- the classical music version.
So backing up and catching up, Chad and I ditched our company holiday party last Thursday and made our way over to the hall to hear El Niño. As I mentioned earlier, the debut of this piece in 2001 had a profound and lasting impact on me. It's remained one of my favorite concert experiences through the years- something completely unforgettable on many levels and I was eager to experience it again. Last week's version was so different from what I saw and heard in 2001 it felt like an entirely different work. That's a good thing because my interest in El Niño wasn't nostalgic- I wanted to know what the work contained that enthralled me so much the first time- not necessarily to re-experience it.
The difficult thing is that so much has changed in my own life since then and I have to weigh that against the very significant changes made to the work as it appeared then versus now. What's objective? The first experience was conducted by Kent Nagano and featured film and dancers choreographed by Peter Sellars. It also had Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in the cast for the world premiere. From what I've read, I was one of the few who found the film to be an integral, deeply moving part of the work. Maybe because I grew up in LA and not only recognized the locations in the film but was profoundly touched by the images it conveyed of Joseph and Mary as desperate yet hopeful Latino immigrants on the overcast beaches of Southern California. The dancers didn't work for me, but the film certainly did. When I walked out of the hall that night I felt a communion with people I'd never experienced before and have never felt since. It was that powerful.
Fast forward 9 years. Dump the divisive film and the dancers. Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson is dead. The 90's are well over and the U.S. has been at war for ten years and the country is as polarized as it's ever been. Adams is now the conductor and the magnificent Michelle DeYoung steps into Hunt-Lieberson's big shoes. Is anything the same now as it was in 2001? Are you the same as you were then?
The brilliance of the score is indisputable. Adams has crafted a contemporary oratorio on the birth of Jesus that can confidently stand next to anything in the canon. It's a masterpiece on so many levels. Dawn Upshaw returns as Mary and is flawless. Flawless! DeYoung makes the part her own through vocal perfection and a stage presence that exceeds that of Hunt-Lieberson, though I suspect few will give this tremendous singer her due in this particular role. Jonathan Lemalu takes over the role of Joseph and it works on every level. Steven Rickards, Brian Cummings, and Daniel Bubeck reprise their roles, angels clad in white, like three countertenors who just strode off a tennis court, to perfection.
Adams has difficulties navigating the behemoth, as he writes about on his own blog, but he does better than he thinks. He keeps this music alive in ways one couldn't expect. Nagano brought out the hope in the score but Adams brings out the doubt which is so appropriate to this time and place. He had to work harder at it, but the result was a performance that didn't confirm a miracle, but left the audience wondering if such things were really possible. It was intense.
As I told some people after the show, in 2001 after seeing this I left with a feeling that my hand had opened itself to the world and myriad possibilities. Nine years later, I felt my hand had become a fist, reluctant to let go of what I knew, in a world that has slowly closed in upon itself.
That's art, and these concerts will be on my year-end top ten list.