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23.1.09

À mon chevet: Hallelujah Junction

John Adams, Hallelujah Junction
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
After a reflective slow movement, the final movement of Grand Pianola Music, entitled "On the Dominant Divide," begins with a long, sustained dominant seventh chord that pulses and throbs for sixty bars before it finally disgorges a virtual Niagara of piano arpeggios. What follows is a melody that sounds utterly familiar, like an "Ur-melodie." You think you've heard it before but can't quite recall when or where. In fact it is an original tune. Back and forth over that most fundamental of all tonal progressions -- tonic-dominant-tonic -- the pianos rock and roll while the brass and drums offer increasing ballast.

It was a P. T. Barnum of a work, and on its first performance in February 1982 in the grimy Japan Center Theater in San Francisco the befuddled audience didn't know whether to cheer or maintain a stony silence. A performance several months later at Avery Fisher Hall in New York actually did elicit some partisan boos, thereby giving the piece the luster of scandal, a value-added benefit by now rare in the otherwise tepid and polite world of contemporary art music. When I went onstage to take a bow the blood rushed to my face at the sound of the booing, but the pianist Ursula Oppens, a veteran of countless contemporary music concerts, grabbed my hand and said, "Oh, my god, they're actually booing . . . don't you just love it?"

-- John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (2008), pp. 117-118
I have to admit that I am heartened to hear audiences booing something, even if the booing seems unmerited in my opinion. So much about concert life these days seems staid and polite (as Adams puts it, too) -- the obligatory standing ovation that is really just a prelude to the sprint for the parking garage. If there is really vociferous cheering or booing, at least it seems like the audience gives a damn. The same is true, to me at least, about critical reviewing -- wasn't Franz Welser-Möst better off with Donald Rosenberg as the thorn in his side, à la Leonard Bernstein and Harold Schonberg? The conflict between concert hall and newsprint page galvanizes listeners in their opposing camps, too, in the tradition of the great French musical querelles (the bouffons vs. the French opera fanatics, the Gluckistes vs. the Piccinnistes). This is what we will lose if independent newspapers do not find a way to reinvent themselves -- a platform large enough for vigorous cultural debate. So, musicians, take a lesson from Ursula Oppens and love the booing.

1 comment:

Mark said...

It's seems a losing battle. I sadly canceled my local subscription yesterday (that's a life change for me), because all my favorite writers are gone and the content is a bore.

Soon without subscribers it will be ALL adverts, front to back. It's a very sad passing.