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Baltimore Symphony, Meet John Adams

Baltimore Symphony, Carlos Kalmar, Meyerhoff Hall, April 28, 2006After Dutilleux's Correspondances with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, Ionarts went to Baltimore in the pursuit of new music. In this case, it was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It is the most celebrated work of music written to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003, as well as a 2005 Grammy for the recording made by the New York Philharmonic. David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony recently performed the work at Carnegie Hall (review by Bernard Holland), and as the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, audience and critical reaction to Adams's piece -- so powerful at its first performance, by all reports -- is evolving. So, I was glad to get a chance at last to hear the work in a live performance.

Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar led the amassed performing forces, with the Concert Artists of the Baltimore Symphonic Chorale and the large Peabody Children's Chorus in the choir stands behind and in the side balconies on either side of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Kalmar's first gesture was to cue the prerecorded tape prepared by Mark Grey. At first, all we hear are the sounds of a normal city's song, busy streets, sirens, and the click of people's shoes as they walk down the sidewalk. Soon, a boy's voice begins the piece's first ostinato, repeating the word "Missing," followed by a litany of victims' names. These "concrete" sounds are then interwoven with the wash of performed sound, beginning with women's voices on an "oo" vowel and gentle string chords. Much of the piece unfolds with the effect of Klangfarbenmelodie, a pulsating mass of sound out of which harmonic colors surge and recede, not unlike what you see when staring at a stained glass window.

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John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (released on August 31, 2004)
Adams insisted that he was not trying to make a narrative of the events we all remember from that terrible day. He describes Transmigration as a "memory space," a template of sound on which we may map our own grief and commemoration. The opening is generally soft until we hear what sounds like people descending stairs on the tape, which does seem to signal a change from the normal September morning (the children's chorus's pulsed harmonies, repeated over and over, "It / was / a / beau / ti / ful / day") to the chaos of the attack. There are extremely low notes (the curved shapes of both contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet are visible over the orchestra) that rumble under polished string chords, until the first loud section begins, big orchestral waves of sound, with all the percussion mallets hammering and thwacking. In the loudest passage, the work descends into total cacophony, with the chorus shrieking over massive brass swells. This dissolves into the final section, with melting sounds in the high strings and pings of metallic sound from the celesta and other instruments like drops of water. It brings us back to the low notes and the simple recitation of names, which end the work.

John Adams, b. 1947, composerThis weekend is also the opening of the new movie Flight 93, a dramatization of the fourth September 11 flight that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Some of the criticism of the film derives from the proximity in time to the disaster and the perception that the movie's creators are trying to profit from it. What this shows is that September 11 is not quite "history" yet in our minds. Americans are still looking for someone to punish for the attacks. Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls in a comparatively short time, within a year of the attacks, and it is possible that, as the years pass, its nature as an occasional work will become more and more apparent. I was certainly moved by this performance, but Transmigration has some of its seams showing. It has a certain journalistic topicality about it, not unlike Picasso's Guernica, close in time to the attack itself as a media event. However, it no longer packs the original punch to the guts that was felt at the premiere, and a certain slapped-together quality prevails at times.

This performance was very good, well coordinated by Kalmar, who marshalled his shining array of forces with panache. However, the BSO opted to append to the work a sloppy performance of Mozart's ever-present motet Ave verum corpus, K. 618. The lack of any pause did not allow the audience to appreciate the impact of Adams's piece: indeed, many in the audience sat stubbornly in their seats as I walked out, convinced that there was still some piece by Mozart left on the program. This was a bad decision for many reasons, not the least because it joined something liturgical to music that Adams wanted specifically to be aliturgical. "I want to avoid words like 'requiem' or 'memorial' when describing this piece," he has said, "because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn't share." (At the same time, the image he has used to describe his conception of the piece is "one of those old, majestic cathedrals in France or Italy," as if a Roman Catholic cathedral does not "suggest conventions" as much as or more than the word requiem.) To make the incongruity worse, Kalmar's beat was all over the place and what should be a simple, homophonic musical statement -- albeit one that does not graft well to the Adams, from which it could not be more different -- was marred by a lack of unity in rhythm and diction from the large choral forces.

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R. Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music, Five Mystical Songs, Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Flos Campi, Sixteen Soloists, Thomas Allen, Nobuko Imai, Corydon Singers, English Chamber Orchestra, Matthew Best
There was a first half, too, beginning with Schubert's Symphony No. 3 in D Major, D. 200, a happy-go-lucky bonbon from the prolific 18-year-old Viennese assistant teacher. It was 1815, Haydn had been dead for only six years, and Beethoven would soon embark on a series of daring, enigmatic works that musicologists would later refer to collectively as his late period. The young Schubert could not have known then that he had only 13 years left to live, and he seemed to be able to produce endless amounts of music, much of it quite good. Kalmar and the orchestra did not always connect in this work either, although it was a pleasant enough performance. The first movement had a sensitively drawn slow introduction and heavy-handed Allegro con brio section, not always quite together, particularly at the second theme, where the accompanimental figures in the strings did not line up with the winds. The second-movement Allegretto felt a little Andante, charming but a little underinflated. I was often distracted by Kalmar's full-body conducting, at times all jangling elbows like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, flopping from side to side, his poofy mane of gray hair shaking with each stab and slash. The BSO put together a nice, calm Menuetto, with chippy wind solos in the trio, and an impressively fast finale, almost cracking apart but overall a great accomplishment.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO impressive in Adams' sobering 9/11 piece (Baltimore Sun, April 29)
The orchestra's reduced numbers during the Schubert got reinforcements for the second piece, Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music, composed in 1938 to celebrate the anniversary of conductor Sir Henry J. Wood, the man who gave us the Proms at Royal Albert Hall. It's a gorgeous piece, also written for a specific occasion, but with text (drawn from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice) that gives it life beyond its original performance. I couldn't understand most of the text as sung by the Peabody Singers (hmmmm-hmmm, music, hmm-hmm-hmm, harmony), although the louder consonants (S, K, T) came across as clear as day. I didn't really care, because Kalmar's sculpting of the music was most effective, grand sweeps of sound and gesture that he elicited from orchestra and chorus.

You can hear this program one more time, tomorrow (April 30, 3 pm) at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (The BSO will not be bringing this concert to Strathmore.) If you don't want to go all the way to Baltimore and only want to hear the Vaughan Williams, you could go instead to hear the concert by the Metropolitan Chorus at the Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria at the same time (April 30, 3 pm). You would get violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg playing the Tchaikovsky D major concerto with the Alexandria Symphony in the bargain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting information. One thing to correct: "I couldn't understand most of the text as sung by the Peabody Singers (hmmmm-hmmm, music, hmm-hmm-hmm, harmony), although the louder consonants (S, K, T) came across as clear as day." There were no Peabody Singers in the Vaughan Williams.