Gustavo's Week

GUSTAVO’S WEEK: On Thursday night there was the Strauss Alpen-Symphonie, an hour of orchestral banality as unbearable to the mind and the backside as anything I care to summon up. The work must appeal to Dudamel, for reasons I will not attempt to fathom. On this program it followed the Concerto (K. 488) that offers Mozart’s exquisite   A-major scoring for winds and horns, and the piano solo in the slow movement that could just break your heart  (but not as rattled out by Rudolf Buchbinder this time around; what has happened to his fine old sensitivity?).

Saturday morning Gustavo met with the first of the youth orchestras that will take shape city-wide, inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, the educational system that has given us our Maestro, along  with an annual quarter-million kids who play in orchestras throughout their country. Saturday’s gathering was the EXPO Center Youth Orchestra, the first project of Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA), a partnership of the Philharmonic, the Department of Recreation and Parks, and the Harmony Project that, among other good deeds, provides deserving kids with the instruments they need. EXPO Center, where we met, is the converted 1932 Olympic Swim Stadium. EXPO Center Youth Orchestra’s kids come mainly from within a 5-mile radius of the Center, representing more than 60 public, charter and private schools in South LA. The “System” includes workshops for parents, involving them in the childrens’ musical activities. Instruments are provided free, so long as their “owners” take proper care.

I walked in. An orchestra of 100-or-so were struggling with something vaguely recognizable as the last movement of the Beethoven Fifth, a truncated version and with Beethoven’s orchestration enhanced with xylophone, bass drum, seven or eight trumpets…get the idea?. The kids looked anywhere from six to, maybe 14, and the great sight – one of them, anyhow – was that when Dudamel walked through the ranks to deal one-on-one with, say, an errant trumpet section, it was as another of the group: same height, same boyish smile.

He pleaded with those brass players; they’d been letting the tone droop a the end of a phrase.”I wanted to be a trombone player, but I couldn’t. My arm was too short; I couldn’t manage the…what you call it…the slide.” A little later, struggling with the strings, he has all the players set their instruments down and sing a few minutes of Beethoven’s score. “You see, how beautiful? Now let’s play like that. …”

A half hour after my arrival, the EXPO Center Youth Orchestrs had begun to deliver a recognizable version of somebody-or-other’s rewrite of that Beethoven movement. On his podium, Dudamel looks pleased. “In two years,” he promised, “we’re going to play at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And it won’t be just this cut-down edition of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony; it’ll be the real thing. “ Somehow, a real thing had already begun to take shape that morning.

JOHN ADAMS: Is there still  anything about John Adams – the composer, that is, family name Adamson, Swedish – that still needs writing down? The critics have surely had their say: Mark Swed here in town, Alex Ross in the eloquent epigram to his important book, myself in (sob!) the Weekly, Thomas May  in his John Adams Reader that wisely collects us and many more. We have lacked only a few words from the object of our affectation himself, and if you know John Adams’s music –  really know it – it may not surprise you to discover that everything up to now is puny indeed beside the guy, and what he has to say about himself.

You want to know what it takes to compose great music, serious music that can reach out and touch people importantly? Read John Adams — in this wonderful new memoir called Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26) – in the pages on his activities in the time of 9/11. Conscience stirs him; as it happens, he is in London at the time, preparing a recording of his Death of Klinghoffer, the opera that pits choruses of Jews and terrorists against one another in equal force. The New York Philharmonic wants a piece from him on the tragedy. He is repulsed by the idea, by the media’s almost immediate “kitschification” of the attack. He is moved, finally, by New York itself, by the hand-lettered signs posted around Ground Zero, by the racketing of streets even at 3 a.m., by the “fractals of information” that he can interweave with a text of victims’ names, quietly spoken by a chorus of children. Most of the performing organizations made the automatic move on 9/11, plugging in the great Requiems of Mozart and Brahms. Completed months later,  the intensely human, quiet urgency of Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls came far closer to the sense of that day. It also earned Adams his first Pulitzer.

“And then I wrote…” Composer-memoirs, no less than prose authors’ memoirs, come a dime-a-dozen. Something about this intense, immensely charming and revealing work of Adams, however, transcends the bunch. The tell-all is positively disarming; show me another composer willing to admit that one of his best orchestral works, the Chamber Symphony is a blend of influences from the same-named music by atonality pioneer Arnold Schoenberg and the cartoon comic Ren and Stimpy favored by his son Sam. (Show me another composer, for that matter, willing to name his first-born after a beer.)

As memoirs go, Hallelujah Junction follows a circuitous path – like the eponymous dirt road in the High Sierras, where Adams’ maintains his composing retreat.  It starts with a dance-band on a New Hampshire pleasure boat, with Dad on clarinet and young John listening, learning, moving on to music jobs in summer camps, eventually to Harvard. There his life is bracketed by The Beatles, LSD and Pierre Boulez. He learns the rules of strict counterpoint,  discovers John Coltrane  and submits his first composition: The Electric Wake. On graduation his mother presents him with a copy of John Cage’s Silence, a  libertarian manifesto; his response is to climb into his car and head West. Cruising along California hilltops at sunrise, Wagner on the stereo, he has his first epiphany; he begins to know what music is all about. Later, looking down at the Pacific, he will turn a second epiphany (The Dharma at Big Sur) into music to help dedicate Disney Hall.

The first San Francisco years run on familiar tracks: beans and ramen in the Haight-Ashbury, one marriage torpedoed, one small break leading to a bigger one, a brave new conductor at the Symphony (Edo de Waart) willing to take a chance and – kaboom! – Harmonium, a first masterpiece and a big one. The second was the super-gorgeous Grand Pianola, and I was privileged to be in the Lincoln Center audience that erupted in almost-unanimous booing, and to chronicle the event in Newsweek as West Coast music achieving landfall.

Adams achieved security: composer-in-residence at the SF Symphony. He had not composed a note for the human voice when, in 1982,  boy-genius Peter Sellars descends upon him with plans fully drawn for an opera called  Nixon in China, but somehow he draws blood. Everything you wanted to know about Nixon is set forth in Adams’ brilliant character-analysis of the Sellars’ and Alice Goodman’s scenario and libretto.

Came next, however, Klinghoffer, with its good-Jew/bad-Jew censorship controversy that won’t go away so long as producers assume the chutzpah of producing the opera in any form. (The original Sellars staging has been superseded by the interesting Penny Woolcock revision on DVD, which does not, fortunately,  pull the teeth of the drama. ) Adams fairly details the many attempts to kill the work, most of all the jeremiad by musicologist Richard Taruskin that ran in the New York Times, which is answered with equal sting by librettist Goodman (who converted out of Judaism while creating Klinghoffer’s poetry).

Doctor Atomic differs in that Adams approached Peter Sellars with the idea, rather than vice versa; the piling-up of controversy, the intensity of positive and negative criticism, remain the same. (Balancing, however, is the sublime A Flowering Tree, composed almost simultaneously, impossible to disparage.) The piece, first of all, rests on a fabulous mingling of poetry: John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita, Muriel Rukeyser, blended into Sellars’s gathering of scientific memoranda, data rescued from trashcans, etc. Again, any doubts about the sureness of Adams’s part in this music are easily dispelled in his own words on the opera’s focal moment. J. Robert Oppenheimer stands alone, his soul lacerated by the words of John Donne, the shadow of The Bomb behind…as John Adams, in the key of D minor, lacerates us all. You don’t need to read music to know how this works; John is there to make it clear.