Adams the Accessible

Threaded like a litany though the recent writing about John Adams — of which there has been considerable, local and national — is the proclamation of him as the most “accessible” of contemporary composers. Surely the term has the ring of truth, along with an undertone of danger.

“Accessibility” is often confused with “easy listening,” the domain of “good music” radio and its fellow combatants against the deadly peril of the 12-tone row and comparable atrocities. It may be true — although I haven’t actually checked — that John Adams has not yet inflicted a tone row on his public, but this has little bearing on his current accessibility. I think of a piece as accessible when it fulfills the function of letting me know where I am in the music at any moment, and whether it‘s worth my time to keep on being there. I would need quite a few semesters to teach the many ways music can accomplish this (and, by the way, I’m available). In case you‘re wondering, however, I can state that, yes, I found last week’s all-Adams program, which he conducted at the Philharmonic, most satisfyingly accessible, as I did his operatically leaning oratorio El Niño in San Francisco last month.

Let me go on a bit more about this accessibility thing. The fact that I happily tar John Adams with that brush has nothing to do with his predilection for composing real and memorable tunes in triadic harmony, with an orchestral palette that Richard Strauss might have gladly sanctioned, in rhythms that set the toes to tapping (but with an extra beat thrown in now and then for glorious obfuscation). Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s LA Variations, his great orchestral work of a couple of years ago, doesn’t display any of those predilections; I found it immediately accessible (as did a cheering crowd at the Philharmonic premiere) because it told us at every moment, in masterful, convincing terms, what it was about and where it was going.

A composer‘s chosen language — conservative, modernist, neo-this or post-that — is an inadequate criterion for a listener’s like or dislike. What matters far more is what the music is trying to say, and whether it actually says it. Arnold Schoenberg‘s Fourth String Quartet, one of those deadly perilous tone-row pieces you’re not likely to hear on local radio, strikes me as accessible because of the remarkable way its constructional genius makes itself heard. My problem with the music of Brahms, which I acknowledge as an obsession running through some 50 years of professional writing, stems from the conflict between recognizing where I am in, say, his First Piano Concerto or the Piano Quintet — to cite two particular bogeys — and my desperate desire to escape.

Adams‘ local program began with relatively new music, the piano concerto Century Rolls, composed for and played by the scholarly, classic-minded Emanuel Ax, who seemed freshly vitalized by the work. And why not? The music trips along blithely, enchantingly. Its title has to do with performance styles on old pianola rolls. More to the point, the benevolent shadow of Ravel — his Piano Concerto, most of all — falls across the work, to its great enlightenment. It dates from 1997, two years before Adams’ extraordinary Naive and Sentimental Music, with a lot less on its mind, perhaps, but with a lovely small message lovingly delivered.

Then came Nixon in China — in the portable version whimsically re-titled The Nixon Tapes — its stature so forcefully declared that you have to wonder why the opera hasn‘t, in its 14-year existence, become a repertory fixture alongside, say, Tosca. (It hasn’t done badly, in fact. I‘ve seen it in Helsinki; the English National Opera produced it last year; and let me point out that John DeMain, who led the world premiere in Houston in 1987, is now a local hero as head of Opera Pacific. How about it?) Adams’ luggage was lightly packed: the big arias for Dick (“News, news, news . . .”) and Pat (“This is prophetic”) and the banquet speech for Chou with the woozy chorus; I‘d have happily stayed longer for Madame Mao’s glorious aria, but that, alas, got left behind. James Maddalena was the Tricky Dick as before; I would hazard the guess that the operatic image of Nixon is by now, at least for the happy 3,000 who yelled themselves hoarse at the Music Center last Friday night, far more vivid than the dreary blur in the history books. Susan Narucki, a newcomer to the role of Pat, staked out an unchallengeable claim.

Kent Nagano led the bedazzlement of El Niño at San Francisco‘s Davies Hall, with radiant singing by Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White to confirm the power of Adams’ Nativity oratorio. There were, however, problems. The temptation for all-out production was probably irresistible, and the musical work will surely outlive Peter Sellars‘ visuals, which made for an uncomfortable sensory overload. These included an excess of operatic staging down front, plus a film that transported agonizingly predictable images of suffering, birth and transfiguration into a Los Angeles barrio — a ludicrous companion, in other words, to Sellars’ relocated Magic Flute (on the L.A. freeways, for Glyndebourne), Rake‘s Progress (at an LAPD jailhouse, for Le Chatelet in Paris) and Pelleas et Melisande (in Malibu, for the L.A. Opera). The 100-minute score, deep and rich, draws upon haunting contemporary Latino poetry, interspersed with strange and folklike imagery from several Apocryphal texts — an exercise in eclecticism on Adams’ part so sharply superior to the helter-skelter provenance of the visuals that you had to wonder at their being under the same roof, in the service of the same masterful, accessible music.

Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have scheduled El Niño for a performance in 2003 shortly after the opening of Disney Hall. The work was recorded by Nonesuch at the Paris premiere in December, and is being rushed into production while it‘s still, in the language of the record industry, “hot.” Naive and Sentimental, also regarded as a “hot” score two years ago at its premiere under Salonen, was recorded here at the time, also by Nonesuch. That release, however, has been postponed until God knows when. Go figure.

Ease of access is not what comes first to mind in considering the music of Yannis Xenakis, who died in Paris last week, at 78. I think first of ferocious energy, of outbursts of sheer kinetic power — propelled in his early works by madcap percussion ensembles, and later by extraordinary, intricate interaction of live and computer-driven forces. I also think of his stature in the world of the arts, the way his expertise at music and at architecture have worked in some pieces to create something truly larger than their parts. Architecture, wrote Goethe, is frozen music; Xenakis applied the blowtorch.

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