Nonconformity Thursday

It was an evening of geniuses and rebels that started in Evanston (named after me) and finished in the loop.  By the end, I had seen Alex Ross, met John Luther Adams, and gained a new appreciation for Mahler.

[unreservedly recommended!]

At Northwestern, John Luther Adams was there to accept the Nemmers Prize ($100k) and to talk with certified genius Alex Ross.  They spoke casually about JLA's biography, Alaskan lifestyle, and the tradition of experimental music in America.  Frank Zappa, James Tenney, and Varèse featured prominently, such that when Beethoven surfaced towards the end (in reference to the 9th) it was somewhat of a shock.  [Beethoven and JLA share almost nothing but the instruments, though his 9th is his most spacious, Alaskan moment; my roommate's noise band has more in common with JLA's music.]

And then I biked down the lakefront, Chicago's most Alaskan side, to see Adams' Dark Waves at the CSO.
Before the concert, there was a 2-piano version of the piece, which gave an impression but ultimately failed the composer's intention.  The tape part and piano part started out sonically fused, but progressively came apart--separate but equal.  And, for the size of the hall, the amount of sound didn't fill it up.  Like a bass drum in the desert, the sound floated away in the wind.  But an impression.  An idea of what to expect.  [In the middle, I noticed my heartrate was elevated, like 70bpm, from the bike ride down.  Maybe I was still moving too fast for the piece at this point?]
The orchestra version that opened the concert succeeded much better and was an otherworldly and meditative experience.  However, it reminded me of a piece for solo gong by James Tenney and suffered from the comparison.  The Tenney piece was, essentially, written on a notecard and was a gong roll from quasi niente to a billion forte and then back--for twenty minutes.  It starts as muddy low tones and becomes gradually brighter as the overtones emerge.  Adams' piece was essentially this but with a more undulating terrain: several peaks and valleys, rolling in and out, like, er, waves.  But, whereas the Tenney piece is inherently based on the natural properties of sound, Adams uses only the 5th.  This works fine in the lower registers to create a pitchless mass of sound, but at some point, the violins come in and ruin it. All of a sudden, as the violins play an oscillating 5th, there are distinct pitches; suddenly, we were no longer drifting in the void, we were in a concert hall listening to music.  Which is an interesting experience--going from out there to in here--but was disappointing to me.  [I would have liked to see more divisi, like in Ligeti's soundmasses.]  That said, the ending was positively dramatic: after 12 minutes of sustained low notes undulating somewhat subconsciously, the sudden and severe absence of sound felt like a interior nuclear implosion.
The program moved from one composer in the wilderness to another: Gustav Mahler.  I have never loved Mahler, but these songs, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, helped warm my cold and jaded heart.  The soprano, Canadian Measha Brueggergosman, was a big part of it.  In the first two songs, Rheinlegendchen and Verlorne Müh'!, with their waltzing cheerfulness and optimism, she bobbed and swayed, squeezing every drop of meaning from the words and every drop of expression from the music.  And so, while these two songs are of Mahler's more saccharine Alpine mood, I found their performance delightful, which is not something I usually want to feel and not something I usually admit.  The second pair of songs, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and Urlicht, were intimate and somber; Ms. Brueggergosman adjusted her performance accordingly, seemingly more natural and genuine.  With Mahler's typical bombast stripped away, Brueggergosman and conductor Jaap van Zweden drew the audience into an interior world of love and heartache.  Simple, beautiful, and intense.  
Then intermission.  
The second half was Shostakovich's sprawling 8th Symphony.  Living in and under the U.S.S.R, DSCH was always being manipulated by the apparatchiks to write more uplifting, patriotic music--forced to live in the wilderness of his mind.  His international celebrity in 1942, including a picture on the cover of Time, was a result of his 7th Symphony, premiered during the seige of Leningrad by the Nazis.  While the 7th has a pretty clear program, the 8th does not, expressing the inexpressible only slightly better than silence.  The first movement starts dramatically, like the 5th, and then flows naturally, like the Volga--for nearly 30 minutes.  [Some in the audience thought this the whole symphony, and so the first movement received a smattering of applause.]  The second and third movements were typical Shostakovich bombast (to which I'm far more partial than to Mahler's).  Van Zweden's tempo in the 3rd was dizzyingly fast--exciting and dangerous--like an insane train nearly running off the tracks, nearly blowing the trombone section apart, and causing some disagreement between the low brass and percussion sections.  [Seriously, compare: DSCH, OZ]  The fourth movement was profoundly resigned and forlorn, like DSCH was giving in to Stalin and his henchmen.  The depth of his sorrow found no resolution in the abrupt transition to the final movement: the obligatory happy ending.  This came across as rambling and distracted, forced and awkward, and left me feeling small and powerless against life's obstacles.  
Thus, in the end, the program works: from the primordial ooze of Adams' Waves to the idyllic childhood of Mahler's songs to the harsh realities of DSCH's 8th.  All three are individualist composers, mavericks, and base their art on their immediate environment.  Regardless of style, there's an honesty to their work; regardless of technique, they have something important to say and are continuously endeavoring to say it.  [In stark contrast to last night.]

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