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Friday, September 21, 2007

Minimalist Music: John Adams

John Adams, photo by Deborah O'Grady

I listened to some excerpts from John Adams, on the web or in bookstores, as I intended to buy one or two CD-s with his music.

Tromba Lontana sounded festive and joyous. Harmonium was meditative. Later I found some words of Adams about his inspiration for Harmonium: he started by having in mind three poems - one of them is among my favorites, strange verses of Emily Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

I found then on the web fragments from The Death of Klinghoffer: I knew about the controversy raised by this opera. Halellujah Junction gave me some more insight into his Minimalism. On the Transmigration of Souls was his tribute paid to the victims of 9/11: his Minimalism led him toward a litany meant to leave room for your own meditation on the tragedy from that day.

Eventually I made my choice for two CDs. The first one contained exclusively music by Adams. It began with a 4 minute piece, A Short Ride In A Fast Machine, exuberant, truly pure aural adrenaline. The next piece, The Wound-Dresser, was inspired by Whitman. During the Civil War the poet had volunteered to work in a military hospital as a nurse. The poem meditates this experience, in great Whitmanian respiration (An old man bending I come among new faces...). Adams created a recitative for baritone - the movement is slow, the musical phrases follow each other without rush, and here again room is left for your own meditation.

Then followed Berceuse élégiaque, an orchestral arrangement for a piano work by Ferruccio Busoni (known first of all for his great Bach-Busoni Edition; he was also pioneering in the realm of electronic music, along with Varèse; Busoni was a Kulturmensch, considered as one of the more open-minded spirits of his epoch). Well, Berceuse élégiaque is quiet, it starts like the movement of sea during a very calm afternoon - then an instrument develops a story (possibly about some storm that took place, or is just now evolving somewhere far away), another instrument enters to comment this story, while the background remains calm, just listening, taking the control by the end, as to conclude the story.

The main piece of this CD was Shaker Loops. It's considered his Minimalist flagship. The loops are small melodic segments where the end is tied to the beginning: so, repetitive structures result, further converted in trills and tremolos, to give the shaking. The music tells us about a religious experience: worship in a New England community of Shakers. There are four parts: Shaking and Trembling (wildly frenetic), Hymning Slews (giving a break from the excitement of the first part), Loops and Verses (following the mood of the second part), A Final Shaking (referring the first part, only in a cooler way).

As for the second CD, this was full of surprises. It was violin literature: the soloist was Chloë Hanslip (who is now 20 years old and has already performed the major concertos). The Violin Concerto of John Adams was present on this CD, near the Red Violin Chaconne of John Corigliano, Tristan and Isolde of Franz Waxman, and a fragment from the First Romanian Rhapsody of George Enescu.
Chloë Hanslip
I had seen the Red Violin one or two years ago and I was not remembering all details. A violin traveling through centuries and across countries, passing from a master to another one, living with each passing master stories of great music, love and death, bound by some kind of a spell from the beginning, haunted by a superb melody, inseparable from the terrible spell, a melody inseparable from love and from death - this was what that movie was about.

John Corigliano had scored the movie - he used then the haunting melody as a backbone for his Red Violin Chaconne; Joshua Bell had played the violin in the movie; here on the CD it was Chloë Hanslip, with the British Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin as conductor.

The Red Violin Chaconne was followed on the CD by a fragment from Enescu's first Romanian Rhapsody; what I like mostly from Enescu is the Prelude in Unison (from his Suite No. 1); but I like also the Rhapsody and each time its freshness sounds for me anew.

Actually Enescu was not the only Romanian presence on the disc. Franz Waxman had scored Humoresque, a movie made by Jean Negulesco in 1946; another story where violin and violinist intertwine with love and jealousy; I haven't yet seen the movie, I am curios to find out how the music sounds there, as Tristan and Isolda is a Fantasia based on the score from Humoresque.

The Violin Concerto of Adams was closing the CD: challenging for the soloist, who almost never stops playing. I enjoyed the second part of the Concerto (a Chaconne), and especially its third part (marked as Toccare: soloist and orchestra exchanging series of ongoing rhythmical phrases).

(Musica Nova)



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