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NSO Puts John Adams in Perspective

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Read my review published today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, Adams brings his own "Perspectives" to the NSO
Washington Post, May 14, 2010

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The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer, ed. Thomas May
American composer John Adams appeared on the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, continuing a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center devoted to his music that began with Jennifer Koh's recital on Sunday. Composers are possibly too close to their own work to know how to treat it objectively, as a conductor must, to obtain the best result. Yet a composer-led performance, precisely because of that subjectivity, can also tell you something unique about what the composer was thinking.

The Adams-on-Adams treatment was applied to “The Wound-Dresser,” a 1988 symphonic setting of Walt Whitman’s recollections of his service as a caregiver to wounded troops in the makeshift Civil War hospitals along Washington’s National Mall. It was not necessarily the work one most wanted to hear from Adams, not least because he also conducted it in a similar program with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The piece can be powerful on first hearing, but after repeated listening its extended elegiac tone can become static. The orchestra played the pulsing chords elegantly, with electronic synthesizer touches recalling the timbre of a glass harmonica. Eric Owens lent a smooth, intense bass-baritone to the vocal part, supported by ghostly violin solos and anguished, disembodied cries from the solo trumpet that strained painfully into the stratosphere. [Continue reading]
National Symphony Orchestra
With John Adams (guest conductor) and Eric Owens (bass-baritone)
John Adams: Perspectives
Kennedy Center Concert Hall


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Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man
From Howard Pollack's biography of Copland: Copland conceived Billy the Kid for a 1938 production with Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, a traveling company formed with choreographer George Balanchine, which later reassembled and eventually became New York City Ballet. He worked with choreographer Eugene Loring to adapt the life of Billy the Kid from a book by Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid. Copland incorporated six actual cowboy tunes in the score (Great Granddad, Whooppee Ti Yi Yo Get along little dogies, Old Chisholm Trail, Old Paint, Dying Cowboy, Trouble for the Range Cook), altering them to suit his music, later recalling the irony that he arranged these American folk songs in Paris, living on the Rue de Rennes.

From The John Adams Reader, edited by Thomas May: The Wound-Dresser is set to some of the words from the devastating Civil War poem by Walt Whitman. It was composed at a time when Adams's father was dying of Alzheimer's and his mother's life was focused on caring for him: "I was plunged into an awareness not only of dying, but also for the person who cares for the dying. [... The work] is a statement about human compassion that is acted out on a daily basis, quietly and unobtrusively and unselfishly and unfailingly. Another poem in the same volume states its theme in other words: 'Those who love each other shall become invincible'." (quoted by Sarah Cahill)

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Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute, ed. Peter Dickinson
Barber adapted the Adagio for Strings from the middle movement of his own string quartet, premiered at the Library of Congress in 1937. After the premiere, Barber heavily revised the final movement, and the second-movement Adagio was arranged several times and in different ways (not all by Barber himself). Barber immediately understood the success of the Adagio, reportedly remarking, "It's a knockout!"; the piece later became a bit of an albatross around his neck, like Ravel and Bolero. Menotti later recalled (in an interview with Peter Dickinson) that Barber "was not particularly fond of the String Quartet, but he did like the Adagio and decided to orchestrate it. He wrote it in Austria at St. Wolfgang. [...] He did mind that it was always played at funerals. As a matter of fact, I was careful not to have it played at his funeral because I knew he'd rather have the croutons [sprinkled on his grave, as he joked with his friends -- some did it at his funeral] than the Adagio for Strings!"

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Julian Rushton, Elgar: Enigma Variations

"Composers commonly go out of fashion shortly after their death; Elgar achieved this in his lifetime." (p. 3)

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Elgar, Enigma Variations, cond. Elgar
Of Elgar's Enigma Variations, John Adams notes, "There is a recording of the Enigma Variations made in the late 1920’s. Any conductor today taking the piece up must listen carefully to this recording, for it reveals a kind of approach to orchestral performance that has all but disappeared in the intervening years. The string playing is full of rich, drooping portamenti, a kind of melodic slipping and sliding that listeners today only associate with corny old movie music from the silent film era. But in the context of Elgar’s music it sounds warm and deeply expressive." Adams has more thoughts on the piece at his blog today.

Julian Rushton specifies that the word "Enigma" was added above the theme by A. J. Jaeger (who is cast as Nimrod), on Elgar's instruction, when the work went to publication. Rushton concludes that "Enigma" is not the title of the composition, "but an emblem for the theme" (p. 1). He catalogues the variations as follows: 1. Caroline Alice Edgar, the composer's wife; 2. Hew David Steuart-Powell, amateur pianist; 3. Richard Baxter Townshend, scholar and eccentric; 4. William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield Court; 5. Richard Penrose Arnold, son of Matthew Arnold; 6. Isabel Fitton, amateur violist; 7. Arthur Troyte Griffith, architect; 8. Winfred Norbury, secretary of Worcestershire Philharmonic Society; 9. A. J. Jaeger, publishing manager of Novello's publishing house, who advised and supported Elgar (cast as Nimrod, the mighty Biblical hunter); 10. Dora Penny, later wife of Richard Powell; 11. George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford and owner of a bulldog named Dan -- the music does not represent Sinclair's playing or the bells at Hereford, but Dan falling into the Wye river, paddling upstream, and barking with satisfaction at climbing out of the water; 12. Basil Nevinson, amateur cellist; 13. Lady Mary Lygon, of Madresfield Court; and 14. Elgar himself.

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