…And Never the Twain Shall Meet

If you needed a couple of perfect lab specimens to illustrate the philosophical gap between East Coast and West Coast music, you couldn’t find worthier paradigms than the events at either end of a recent five-day stretch. At one end, Elliott Carter’s string quartets; at the other, John Adams’ El Niño. Anyone who doesn’t consider Adams the greatest living American composer probably thinks that of Carter; vive la différence.

Carter’s five quartets appeared from 1950 to 1995: 45 years in a life of prolific creativity in any genre you can name. Last year, at 94, he even finally got around to writing an opera – not much of one, to be sure, but an Elliott Carter opera nevertheless. New York is his power base; the Brits also accord him top dollar. Here is Britain’s Andrew Porter, writing in The New Yorker about Carter’s Second Quartet (1959), in prose that is, of itself, downright Cartesian:

“Consider the Presto scherzando movement of his Second Quartet, marked to be played ‘with rhythmic precision in all parts.’ To achieve precision in the first measure, that measure of five quarter-notes (which lasts only one and seven-tenths seconds) must be divided into 60 equal parts. The first violin must enter on the counts of 20, 25 and 29; the second violin on one, 16, 31 and 46; the viola on 49 and 58 . . .”

Am I missing something here? Was I derelict in neglecting to take my stopwatch and slide rule to UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on the night in early March when the Pacifica Quartet undertook not one but all five of these Carter works? What I heard that night was nearly three hours of music of phenomenally dense and gritty contrapuntal energy. The First Quartet began with a huge span of melody, a cello solo reaching toward far horizons; it could have been an invocation to the whole long evening. I waited in vain for other music of comparable eloquence. What was most amazing was how little change the language of the music actually went through from one work to another, one decade to the next – beyond the printed information that such and such a work was built out of two pairs of instruments performing differently and that another consisted of simultaneous mixed tempos.

Now and then I thought about Beethoven, about the five quartets at the end of his life, composed over the three years that also produced the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, about how each of those five works seemed to invent its own language, and how each of these languages embodied a new and important message to the listener. From inside these works of Carter I got no message, beyond the news that there were wheels going ’round, masterfully turned. Fine as the playing was by this remarkable young ensemble – currently in residence at Northwestern – I think that the concert did disservice, to Carter and certainly to the dwindling audience. A spot of Beethoven or of Haydn or – you name it – would have helped. During one of the intermissions, a group of concertgoers linked arms and strolled down a corridor singing “Come Back to Sorrento.” Now that’s what you call protest.

There were other wheels going around, leading to El Niño at the Music Center last week: a citywide series of conversations, colloquiums, musical homages, all serving to invest the main event with an aura of importance that was, this once, appropriate and deserved. The work itself is a kind of masterpiece – music not merely about itself and its metrical ratios but with a sense of vast outreach through open windows.

The genius of the work begins in its poetic sources, a panorama – assembled by Adams himself with the collaboration of Peter Sellars – that includes the folkish symbolism of the Apocryphal Gospels, the visions of Hildegard von Bingen, the anguished outcries of contemporary Latino witnesses, the latter-day inquisitions that mirror the horrors of Herod and his court. All this Adams has splendidly underlined with his own range of musical resource: orchestra and chorus raging in furious Handelian counterpoint, a rock bass line to propel the music at other moments, a lament over a contemporary massacre in which the breath simply stops, in the music and in the hearers as well. At the end a children’s chorus and a solo guitar return the music to the silence out of which, two hours before, the miracle of the Nativity first took musical shape. At the pre-concert talk, the pathetically ill-advised interlocutor tried to force Adams into admitting a kinship with Osvaldo Golijov’s vastly different Passion Oratorio. “My name is John Adams,” said John Adams, and that was that.

Peter Sellars’ staging, which I had seen in San Francisco two years ago and later on DVD, was considerably clarified this time from the onstage gridlock that had led to a wearying sensory overload; just the expedient of placing Salonen’s orchestra in the pit made a difference. The chorus, barefoot and casually dressed, formed memorable tableaux on the bare stage floor; so did the three dancers, rising out of the vocal group; so did the three countertenor members of Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, who served as annunciatory angels; so did the made-in-heaven trio – Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White – who have been with the work from the beginning.

Peter Sellars’ film remains extra baggage; Adams’ music will survive on its own. This time, because of the roomier stage design, I did not find the film as oppressive as I had in San Francisco; it is what it is, a visual metaphor for the dramatic intent of the music, a retelling of the musical content on less subtle terms. As a Los Angeles experience, the translation of the Nativity story into a filmed drama among recognizable young people in a recognizable habitat creates some sense of identity. Someday, assuming the continued popularity of El Niño as it truly deserves, the film might serve as a bridge to future performances in more modest settings where seats don’t cost the $82 of last week’s Music Center premiere, and the audience is encouraged to dress down to match the performers onstage.

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