Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

MTT conducts the SF Symphony in Cowell, Mozart (with Gil Shaham), and John Adams’ Harmonielehre

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John Adams, Composer
John Adams, Composer

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
December 11, 2010
Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor

Cowell – Synchrony (1930)
Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, (1775)
Gil Shaham, Violin
Adams – Harmonielehre (1985)

Last week’s program at the San Francisco Symphony carried a sense of celebration with it. John Adams was in attendance, giving luster to the orchestra’s new performance and recording of his “Harmonielehre” under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (Edo De Waart taped the piece in his final year as Music Director, when Adams was composer-in-residence.) There has always been a tendency to rally around the orchestra in San Francisco — cultural boosterism being one of the old-fashioned charms of this now rather important city, which sometimes still thinks of itself as a town and behaves like one in its enthusiasms — and John Adams is a local hero in the orchestra’s history. But the spontaneous applause I heard on Saturday seemed to go beyond these boundaries. It is a though, from the standpoint of an audience, Adams were being hailed for having rescued contemporary music — and indeed, he just may have.

In our lifetime there have always been two listener-alienating afflictions affecting most new music: noise (which is not the same as loudness) and coldness (which is not the same as being bleak). Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” gave composers a template for experimentation with the former, and Schoenberg’s 12-tone system an “out” from any consideration of emotion-related harmonic progression.

Interestingly enough, though, Stravinsky’s own music stops far short of “noise” — indeed, it is possible to hum one’s way through “Le Sacre” and unravel its climaxes by memory — unsatisfying as it might be to listen to anyone making the attempt! And Schoenberg’s own music seldom seems as cold as his system of composition suggests it should. Other composers playing on the field of modernity haven’t always been so lucky, as periodic resurrections of their attempts reveal.

Henry Cowell’s “Synchrony” began the evening and is a case in point. Cowell is best known for his “tone cluster” experiments, compositions featuring one’s fist or elbow hitting numerous adjacent notes on the piano. You can’t very well do that with most instruments in an orchestra, so Cowell explores Stravinskian polytonal dissonances instead and then gets the shock value he wants from thematic traffic jams, like Ives.

“Synchrony” begins with a long solo trumpet theme, whose chromatic twists suggest the English horn solo in the Prelude to Act III of “Tristan”. It has a haunting quality, and everything devolves from it. The piece avoids coldness, as most American music from the era fortunately does. We are not yet in Roy Harris country, but something “open” says we are allowed to feel. That said, much of the writing which follows seems derivative of “LeSacre”, as though bits of Part II were being played at a faster clip than usual, and Cowell’s extended climaxes blare in a chaotic manner which Stravinsky manages to avoid. At the most grating moments, I was reminded that Ives usually had recognizable patriotic songs, hymn tunes and public ditties completing each other’s sentences, so to speak. The elbow-bumping themes here remain strangers, we care less about their destination, and their struggles become traffic noise.

Like much American music of this period, “Synchrony” sometimes sounds French. The “Ivesian” moments could have been penned by Darius Milhaud, and some high writing on flute and piccolo might have been composed by Pierne or Roussel. These are influences one readily hears. But I think “Synchrony’s” most important legacy may lie in its influence upon Leonard Bernstein. The “running basses” and explosive percussion moments in the piece bring to mind the “Symphonic Dances From West Side Story”. Cowell seems to have given composers permission to be energetic in this way — but it took twenty-five years and a Leonard Bernstein to know what to do with the energy.

Saturday’s program balanced itself out with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, performed extrovertedly by Gil Shaham, perhaps too much so. (The “Turkish” last movement deteriorated into a silent movie pantomime, where Shaham would back away from the orchestra in arm-cloaking mock terror, each time an orchestral tutti occurred.)  MTT and the orchestra were consistently lumpy and too loud, and I missed in Shaham’s sonority and general approach anything beyond sheer accuracy and a bit of camp.

The slow movement cadenza, to be fair, was rapt, but there is little “moonlight” or glow in Shaham’s tone — -indeed, a touch of the serrated knife seems to inhabit his sound. Somehow, the obvious theatrics between soloist and conductor fit the mood of a festive evening, and the concerto was well received. But it will take more love and attention for Mozart in San Francisco to be memorable. This was pops.

“Stunning” has to be the proper word for being hit over the head by seven of anything. John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” whams the listener repeatedly in e-minor as it begins, and the composer’s harbor fantasy of a freighter morphing into a rocket-ship under the Bay Bridge is vivid from the outset. Indeed, throughout the work one never loses a sense of metallic bigness, as though the audience were present in an enormous, hollow-sounding shipyard. There are many clangorous works to be found in contemporary repertory, or course: those of William Mathias, for example, but seemingly none that manage to convey sonorous warmth at the same time. An underlying emotional accessibility is the key to Adams, and an awareness of the sensory nature of beauty.

Adams does not hesitate to veer away from his pulsing shipyard triads into the high string and brass world of Sibelius and Rautavarra. And while he doesn’t set before the listener exactly what one would call melodies, from moment to moment one senses the “emotional intelligence” emanating from chords which could have been composed by Korngold or even Howard Hanson. As in the best cinema from the 1940s, Adams’ music never stops being a psychological running commentary. There is a bit of “film noir” to it.

The slow movement of “Harmonielehre” begins very much like the Sibelius Fourth Symphony, a sort of bleak and claustrophobic sinus-headache depicted in music. Gradually, Adams eventually manages to unfold an enormous climax, similar to something in Shostakovich, but more sonorous and better orchestrated from below than Shostakovich. Somewhere in the mix, a bit of Hugo Friedhofer’s music to “The Best Years of Our Lives” seems to make itself felt, and the movement fades away like the slow movement in Shostakovich’s Sixth.

In the last movement, one finds oneself again in Rautavarra’s sonic world. There are high string and bells and the sense of things sinking below the waves. For a while the music cycles in a Philip Glass manner, but this is not a piece of music which could be conducted by an automatic tennis machine. Too many things are coming and going to produce tedium. Ultimately, Sibelian  horn sonorities familiar from “Karelia” and “Night Ride and Sunrise” help build the foundation for a final assault, and this very contemporary piece somehow triumphantly concludes in E-flat.

Michael Tilson Thomas is in his element in music like this, and “Harmonielehre” was superbly and excitingly delivered. When released on disc, this performance will definitely be the recording to have. Beyond the excitement of the moment, though, I sensed a joy and relaxation in Davies Hall, born of the fact that the audience was there to hear a fondly anticipated piece of music. That sense of audience acceptance and anticipation for a contemporary piece of music had disappeared by1985, when Adams composed “Harmonielehre”.

This listener can recall Charles Wuorinen, then composer-in-residence, telling Davies Hall audiences from the stage in the early 1980s that they had better learn to like his dodecaphonic music, since it was the future and was, in any case, what they were going to get. Tough toenails! It was about as convincing to listen to as a DDR official still touting the latest Five Year Plan, and almost as creepy. Those days are thankfully over. I don’t know that “Harmonielehre” will be adopted by ageing conductors as the swan song of their careers, like a great Bruckner Symphony, but it is in the repertory and deserves to be, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the fact of its composition.

Dodecaphony is dead. Long live John Adams!

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