London Philharmonic: Dean, Adams, Holst 23 Mar

Marin Alsop’s Wednesday program at the London Philharmonic began with two living composers: Australian Brett Dean and American John Adams. It was a fascinating look at all that is good, bad, frustrating, and transcendent about contemporary music.

The “frustrating” was Dean’s Komarov’s Fall. It sounded good. It was undoubtedly exciting and built in a nice dramatic arc. I had fun listening to it. I was afraid that the impressively energetic climax would fragment back into the same eerie “space music” effects with which the music began, but these fears were allayed.

And yet–there is really not much to music like Komarov’s Fall. I’ve heard a lot of pieces this way, by composers as varied as John Adams, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Karl Blench, Patrick Clark, Ellen Zwilich, and Roberto Sierra. What kind of music is this? It’s the kind which impresses me deeply with skill at orchestration, but nothing else. These works, popular as they are, primarily function to prove that the orchestra can produce thrilling, strange, novel, and entirely new sounds. I listened to Komarov’s Fall and felt that all over again: wow! What a neat effect!

Only, in this and so many other cases, there’s little behind the neat effects. These (even quite serious works like Higdon’s blue cathedral or Adams’ Violin Concerto) strike me as the 21st century equivalent of Hungarian Rhapsodies: all about novel sounds and textures to provide the audience surface diversions. Brett Dean is undoubtedly very good; his work is the product of incredible labor and skill. Only… why? Why is it written?

John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony (a highlight reel from his opera about the atom bomb) answered the “why?” question with force. In fact, it answered with such compelling, unstoppable emotional intensity that I was left absolutely stunned. This was one of those listening experiences I’ll never forget, like the first time I heard Sibelius or Janáček.

It didn’t start that way. The Doctor Atomic Symphony began fast, extremely loud, and exciting, in a rather generalized way. I resolved to sit back and enjoy the aural bombardment. Only then, gradually, other moods began to percolate: a trombone solo, demanding the London Philharmonic trombonist stand up, echoed through the orchestra in interesting ways, alternating with suitably “atomic” eruptions. Eventually these began to acquire a certain sameness, founded on a minimalist (think Glass) string melody and pounding timpani.

One of these outbursts gave way to a trumpet solo, sad, tender, melodic, a bit like a cry of innocence lost. The louder driving eruption returned, angry, stern, trying to push the music back on its path. The trumpet solo continued, and suddenly one got the sense that the music had actually developed a cast of characters who were in argument with each other, and that it was genuinely conflicted about its own direction. I grew fascinated. Another interruption, defiant, was followed by the clarinet answering the trumpeter’s mournful call, as the emotional forces finally joined full battle. Here was music where something was at stake.

The trumpeter made one last lament before the whole orchestra appeared convinced of the tragedy of it all, and wound down to a subdued close. But no: one more outburst, this one final, almost identical to the others, but because of the context, it was not rude or defiant or even exciting. It was deeply tragic. The music was, in effect, hurtling itself off a cliff.

I simply had no idea this sort of emotional power existed these days, except in rather quiet, mystical pieces on the religio-choral-romantic fringe. Here was a piece that excited, that used gongs and other fun instruments, and that also drew me in to a tragic story with rich characterization and massive emotional power. Bravo!

After the interval, Holst’s Planets seemed silly in comparison. But of course, that’s the virtue of The Planets, isn’t it? It’s sly, witty, and self-effacing. You can hear Gustav Holst grinning in the background. It makes no claim to be anything other than sheer lavish entertainment. The loud bits are raucous fun, the soft bits are gorgeous, and everyone goes home happy.

Especially happy with this fine a performance. Marin Alsop, of whom I’ve written probably my most positive CD review, conducted with precision and joy through the entire program: the London Philharmonic was at the very peak of its form under her direction and every single piece seemed to be just right. Alsop’s Planets included a couple of little tempo lurches in movements like “Jupiter” which emphasized the humor. (Indeed, the famous “big tune” in “Jupiter” sounded, at this tempo, not like a sappy hymn but like a rousing Irish folk tune.) The women’s choir at the end took up one of the boxes on the right (stage left) of the auditorium for an especially spooky effect.

All in all, a great night at the symphony: made unforgettable by the fact that, at long last, I think I’ve finally found “new music” which can resonate with me as deeply and as movingly as anything from the past.

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