Posts Tagged ‘John Adams’

Musikfest Berlin salutes the Stars and Stripes

Friday, September 14th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Blame it on Cage. Or the Marshall Plan. It is impossible to escape the American canon as the season opens here with the Musikfest Berlin (August 31-September 18), an annual festival dedicated to 20th-century music. The event falls just as Europe’s major festivals are drawing to a close and often struggles for a coherent dramaturgical arc. This year though, the theme is almost too linear. With Porgy and Bess, Moses and Aron, and a new production of Apartmenthouse 1776 on the program, it is hard to ignore the adage Berlin strives to be the next New York. Program notes by Artistic Directors Thomas Oberender and Winrich Hopp even point out that the presidential elections are coming up this year, although one can assume that John Adams would have come to conduct Nixon in China with the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra under any other circumstances. Robert Wilson also made a cameo appearance at the Akademie der Künste reading Cage’s Lecture on Nothing; it’s a shame that the event seems so anticlimactic given that the academy began celebrating Cage’s centennial an entire year in advance, exploring his legacy in every possible interdisciplinary form known to man.

It nevertheless must be said that the festival boasts an impressive line-up, with talks by Gerard Mortier and Nuria Schönberg around her late father’s biblical opera and ensembles ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to the city’s well-groomed local crop. Charles Ives, arguably the U.S.’s most underappreciated composer both at home and broad, has no less than nine works performed, including new orchestral versions of a selection form his 114 Songs penned by John Adams, Toshio Hosokawa, and Georg-Friedrich Haas. At the Philharmonie, Ingo Metzmacher led the Berlin Philharmonic in an all-American program featuring Pierre Laurent-Aimard in a new edition of Ives’ Fourth Symphony. The score completed by Thomas Broadhead hopes to have made the composer´s intentions more clear not only through more legible notation but also a precise outline of the issues a conductor must consider as he develops an interpretation. Metzmacher opted to conduct the symphony without assistants, as it was conceived, relying on the chamber-like communication skills of the Philharmonic while enlisting star oboist Albrecht Mayer to briefly lead the brass and percussion at the start of the second movement.

The symphony, despite its structural complexity, forges a clear path toward spiritual transcendentalism, interweaving church hymns and patriotic marches with Mahlerian obstinacy into a sprawling, multi-dimensional score. Metzmacher and the orchestra held together the music’s overlapping textures with admirable precision and care for balance in timbres ranging from glassy strings to brooding brass. The distant choir ensemble of five violins and harp performed offstage from an unearthly realm, while Aimard’s introspective but animated playing trapped the piano in memory in the dream-like collage of the second movement. The strings of the Philharmonic, led by Daniel Stabwara as concert master, brought smooth expressivity to the rich, neo-Romantic phrases of the fugal third movement, while the chorus (Ernst Senff Chor Berlin) entered serenely above the profane confusion in the finale.

Latin-inspired music of the mid-twentieth century provided the theme for the rest of the evening with Gershwin’s Cuban Ouverture, Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and, the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story. The dance rhythms could have used more swing in the Gershwin, but became catchier in the final Animato. Metzmacher brought out opaque dissonances with a strong hand, while wind solos reaffirmed the orchestra’s standards for impeccable elegance. While the “Cool Fugue” of Bernstein´s dances was not quite streetwise enough, the “Somewhere” Adagio was meltingly beautiful. Antheil took a more modernist approach to his repurposing of jazz, particularly in his writing for the piano. The musicians remained on point in a collage-like development reminiscent of Ives, while Metzmacher could have brought more spontaneity to rhythmically playful entrances.

Across town on the Gendarmenmarkt, German violinist Isabelle Faust joined the Konzerthaus Orchestra for Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra conducted by Emilio Pomarico. This final piece of a series of works for soloist and orchestra is also Feldman’s longest orchestral work with a duration of approximately one hour, premiered in 1984 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. Faust was well warmed up to the technical subtleties of her part, having recorded the work with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 2001. She refracted hushed, fragmented melodies and precisely wrought microtonal glissandi against the intricate atmospherics of the orchestra, which responds to the violin’s inquiries with an understated tension that seems to stretch time out into infinity. The Konzerthaus Orchestra retained quiet focus throughout the work, with all the right tuning in place, although the sections are not able to overcome a certain roughness around the edges. A friend who composes in post-Feldman style also called on Pomarico for trying to be expressive with the tempo rather than just beating out time and allowing the music to speak for itself.

Pomarico’s use of rubato proved more amenable to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which he opened the program in dedication to the recently deceased composer Emmanuel Nunes, but the tempo slowed down too much toward the end of the opening Allegro, and the Andante lacked the steady pace that feels like a slow march into heaven. Technical blemishes unfortunately also detracted from the performance’s Gestalt. The strings entered with fiery attacks but were sometimes marred by a husky sound which cannot quite do justice to Schubert’s soulful phrases. Still, as the understated beauty of the Andante floated in time, one felt an unusual sense of historical continuity.

As Feldman admitted at a seminar in Germany in 1972, “there’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is like mourning…something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.” Feldman later disclosed that he didn’t like to discuss the issue publicly, perhaps because of his determination to overcome the overwhelming presence of 19th-century German tradition, which was to some extent inextricably linked for the composer to the horrors of the Holocaust. That his later works managed to preserve a certain amount of sentimentality as they turned their back on western convention only speaks to the lasting power of the New York School which, ironically, is worshipped with an unparalleled fervor in Germany.

Musikfest Berlin, through September 18.

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra takes the Philharmonie

Friday, July 6th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

A timpanist just tall enough to rumble his mallets over the kettle drums stares out from beneath his specs as Lars Vogt slides onto the bench for the opening chords of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

“I like that sound!” says Music Director Donato Cabrera to the young percussionist as he walks out into the front aisles of the Philharmonie. “Could you do more of a crescendo?”

He immediately resumes.


The members of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) stamp their feet in congratulation. As rehearsal continues, former Music Director Alasdair Neale, who has dropped into town for a visit, also weighs in from the aisles, coordinating seamlessly with Cabrera to refine balance issues. The orchestra plays through parts of Mahler’s First Symphony, the strings attempting a dreamy pianissimo that even the world’s best orchestras struggle to create.

Finally, it is time for rehearsal to come to an end. “Breathe, breathe, breathe,” Cabrera offers as a final suggestion. “And play your guts out!”

Donata Cabrera rehearses with the SFSYO at the Philharmonie (c) Oliver Theil/SFSYO-Few professional orchestras enjoy the same degree of artistic adventure as the SFSYO. The orchestra came to Berlin as part of a European tour (June 20-July 6)—its eighth since being founded in 1981—that traveled through three other German cities, Luxemburg, and ended in Salzburg. As the orchestra’s Director of Education Ronald Gallman pointed out, playing on the same stage as the Berlin Philharmonic is already an enormous accomplishment, not to mention a huge boost for the morale. The ensemble, drawing together Bay area musicians aged 12 to 21, exists on a tuition-free basis (thanks to generous sponsorship which also made this year’s tour possible) and receives weekly coaching with members of the San Francisco Symphony as well as yearly sessions with San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Guest artists have included Yo-Yo Ma, Sir Simon Rattle, John Adams, and Midori.

Vogt, joining the SFSYO for the fifth time, told me backstage that “the sky is the limit” with this orchestra, adding how important it is for professional musicians not to be “set in their frames” and allow the youthful inquiries of musicians playing something like Mahler for the first time to bring a fresh take on issues that more seasoned players take for granted. Cabrera emphasized that the act of discovery is no different with a youth orchestra than any other professional ensemble. “This is what we live for,” he said. “There is always more to peel away and discover.”

Speaking with three of the orchestra’s members, it was clear that they shared these values of music-making as a constant learning process. Principal violist Omar Shelly explained that while they had already rehearsed the programmed works extensively at home, the tour was a “huge opportunity to adjust a prime product to different places, like a catering to a menu.” Principal oboist Liam Boisset, who like Shelly plans to become a professional musician, raved about how the acoustics of the Philharmonie allowed all the orchestra’s members to hear one other. “I’ve learned so much more about Mahler on this tour,” he said. “It makes me much more aware about where I sit in the orchestra.”

At the concert later that evening, the Grieg opened with a precisely built crescendo on the timpani that carried well to the back of the Philharmonie. The close attention in rehearsal to balance made itself clear in the elegant flute and horn solos of the first movement, while Vogt brought a light yet intense touch to the runs underlying the orchestra. Vogt’s emotional togetherness with the ensemble was particularly apparent in the Adagio movement, and the sighing melodies received a lovely rubato in the strings. The final Allegro, featuring Vogt in a spirited evocation of a Norwegian folk dance, was thoroughly polished and on point. Every dynamic shading emerged well-conceived and firmly in its place, yet there was also a mystical quality to the quieter passages, such as when the flute and dusky strings usher in a nocturnal passage on the piano.

In Mahler’s First Symphony, Cabrera and the SFSYO admirably captured the leisurely pace the composer indicated in his tempo indication Langsam, schleppend—as opposed to the third movement (Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen). The playful “kuckuck” wind motifs were particularly endearing coming from a youth orchestra, contrasting at first ironically with the glassy opening strings and the primordial inquiries underlying the music. The orchestra nailed the Scherzo, with its jaunty waltz riff (in fact an Austrian Ländler), executing phrases of mature heft and temperament. Even after the deluge of Mahler last season for the centenary of his death, it is impossible to resist being captivated by the Frère Jacques canon of the third movement, with its slow, resigned march toward death, interrupted by Jewish folk melodies that mourn as they rejoice. After making its way with rapt attention through this spiritual ambiguity, the orchestra let loose in the turbulent final movement, lending charged passages force without becoming muscular. Mahler not being a composer of the greatest psychological simplicity, the Sitzfleisch and intellectual stamina of these young musicians deserve much praise.

Yet it was John Adams’ Shaker Loops that showed the orchestra at its best. The composer’s extensive collaboration with the musicians’ home organization of course strengthens their claim to this music, Adams having inspired the Meet the Composer residency program and established his national reputation with works written for the San Francisco Symphony. Shaker Loops is one of his first major compositions, adapted from a septet to full string orchestra in 1982 and featuring pulsating minimalist textures that, unlike in Reich or Glass, are set to Western harmonies and traditional form. The high energy of the repeated tremoli in the opening Shaking and Trembling immediately brought some west coast wind into the Philharmonie, and the eerie microtonal slides in the following Hymning Slews revealed impressive technical precision. A Final Shaking provided a satisfying close with anxious high-pitched shimmering that yields to ecstatic tonal harmonies. It is not for nothing that the SFSYO won an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming and the Award for American Programming on Foreign Tours this year.

Cabrera with the SFSYO (c) Jeff Bartee Photography/SFS

Choosing the Right Moment

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

by Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

Dear Edna:

As it is now late August and booking season is heading our way, I was wondering when you think is the best time to catch orchestra executive directors. I will be sending out materials through regular mail and e-mail. If I move too soon, they will be on vacation and have a lot to sort through when they return. If I’m too late, they may have already started the decision making process and my name most certainly won’t make it on the list! When is the best time to reach out? —A Violinist

Dear violinist:

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time that any orchestra makes decisions about guest artists. In truth, it is an evolving process that might begin about eighteen months before the start of a season and continue until six months before the start of the season. It all depends on the size of the orchestra and when they traditionally announce their season. I admire your industriousness but hope you realize that the number of orchestras who will respond to unsolicited letters and promotional materials is rather small. Make sure that whatever you send clearly highlights something that might be of interest to them (perhaps a premiere or rarely performed work of genuine substance or appeal). Assuming that you are writing to mid-size or smaller orchestras, from now until Thanksgiving is an ideal time to be in touch. If the orchestra has an artistic administrator, you would do well to write to them instead of the executive director, as chances are a bit better that they will take note of your approach to them. Good luck!


I am grateful to my longtime friend and colleague, Ed Yim, former president and current board member of the American Music Center and Artistic Consultant to the New York Philharmonic, for his assistance in preparing my response to the following question.

Dear Edna:

I am a composer whose career is beginning to take off. I was fortunate last year to win a number of prizes and I have been receiving commissions. I also have signed with a very fine publisher who is eager to promote my work. Recently, I was contacted by a manager who is interested in representing me. I would appreciate your advice on whether a composer needs both a publisher and a manager. Thank you so much. —A Curious Composer

Dear Curious Composer:

Thank you for writing in with a question that I am sure will be of interest to other composers. It is wonderful  that you are already in a position to be represented by a fine publisher. Congratulations, too, on having won a number of prizes and already secured some commissions. It sounds like things are going very well for you. At the present time, I don’t think you need to have a manager. Part of your publisher’s job is to investigate possible new commissions and to promote your published works, hopefully leading to increased performances of them. There may come a time in the future when, if your career has grown exponentially, you might want to hire a publicist or manager to call attention to certain works or projects you have undertaken. They would also be an added ally to help monitor your publisher’s effectiveness on your behalf. In general, most composers don’t have managers unless they have their own performing ensembles (for example, Steve Reich) or are active as performers in some other way (e.g., John Adams as conductor).  Those performance activities generate an income stream that makes them more attractive to managers. Another raison-d’être for a manager’s or publicist’s involvement would be if the composer was undertaking substantial projects, such as extended residencies, or was the focus of major retrospectives. I hope that your current partnership with your publisher brings significant new opportunities your way and that whenever the occasion arises, you find time to share your experiences and mentor some younger colleagues. Composers’ careers develop differently from those of singers, conductors and instrumentalists, and they are always grateful to receive advice and encouragement from someone such as yourself.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

Mostly Mozart/Some Stravinsky

Friday, August 12th, 2011

by Sedgwick Clark

Lincoln Center’s attempt to add variety to Mostly Moz is just fine with me, especially if the variety is Stravinsky. Audiences seem to agree too, for a Saturday afternoon of Stravinsky films and two concerts of his chamber music by the spiffy International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) were packed.

The first of the films was the familiar CBS New Special on the composer, narrated by Charles Kuralt. There’s a lot of good material here (unfortunately in a washed-out video source so typical of the 1960s), particularly an appearance in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, where Le Sacre du printemps received its scandalous premiere on May 29, 1913. The aged composer tells of that infamous occasion and walks to the seat in which he sat that night. But not for long, as the audience’s catcalling began almost immediately and the infuriated composer arose from his seat, shouted “Go to hell,” and headed backstage.

The second film documents a powerfully emotional 1963 Budapest performance of the composer leading the Hungarian Radio Orchestra in his Symphony of Psalms. Ensemble is iffy, tuning of the winds is wishful, and the orchestra is obviously following the concertmaster rather than Stravinsky’s jerky beats. But none of this matters in light of a mesmerizingly slow third movement that never loses its rapt concentration and buoyant rhythm. How could he ever have said — even to make an anti-Romantic point — that “music is powerless to express anything”?

The third film was choreographer Pina Bausch’s 1978 rendering of Le Sacre (to Boulez’s Cleveland recording), overpowered by the music as usual. The fourth film was Julie Taymor’s fanciful production of Oedipus Rex, which was about as far from the composer’s austere conception as could be imagined, and presumably welcome to those who find the music marmoreal. Jessye Norman and Philip Langridge sing well, with Seiji Ozawa leading the Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra.

Stravinsky on ICE

The pair of ICE concerts on Monday, August 8, offered rarely played works in sterling performances. The 7:30, in Alice Tully Hall, was all Stravinsky, and the 10:30 concert in the Kaplan Penthouse was Stravinsky and several short works written in memoriam to him by Denisov, Berio, Carter, Finnissy, Schnittke, and Zorn. (The complete listing of works is at the end of my previous blog.) So, let’s talk about the guest conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado. The day after this concert, my friend Mark Swed, music critic of the Los Angeles Times, called to ask if I had heard these concerts (silly question) and what I thought of Pablo. To tell the truth, I hadn’t heard of him before reading Steve Smith’s Times review on Monday of an earlier concert in which H-C reportedly set very fast tempos in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which is the only way I can abide the piece (after all, Wolfy did specify Molto Allegro and Allegro assai for the outer movements). But now that I have I won’t miss his next local appearances. His bio says he’s “A champion of contemporary music” and that he has the imprimatur of Pierre Boulez. Oddly, however, there’s no mention of his home country and age. He’s 34, hails from Granada, Spain, and has a bush of dark, curly hair that rivals Gustavo’s. He, too, is blessed with matinee idol looks. From the Tully balcony he looked to be all of 20 when he smiled, but seemed closer to his given age in the intimate Penthouse.

He certainly knows his way around a score. Stravinsky’s Ragtime, “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, Eight Instrumental Miniatures, and the Octet downstairs zipped along delightfully. He might have reined in his ICE players a bit and achieved crisper textures, but such sins of youth are forgivable in light of such clean rhythms and lively tempos. Only the thorny Concerto for Piano and Winds disappointed; had I not heard the revelatory performance last season at Zankel by Jeremy Denk and John Adams conducting the Ensemble ACJW, the performance in Tully would have seemed impressive. But Peter Serkin’s technically unimpeachable yet comparatively monochromatic solo work paled next to Denk’s fleet-fingered, balletic romp.

Perahia’s Bach

A Sony Classical re-release in a three-CD set (88697 82429 2) of Bach keyboard concertos played by Murray Perahia is so darned musical that one wonders where nearly everyone else went wrong. So warm, expressive, joyous, naturally paced—if you don’t have these recordings already, don’t hesitate.

Contents: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1-7; Concerto for Flute, Violin & Harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050; Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971.

Looking forward

8/12-13 Bard Music Festival. Sibelius and His World.

In Praise of …

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

By Alan Gilbert

I’ve often spoken about the uniquely awesome capacity of the New York Philharmonic, but I really must tip my hat to the musicians for what they have done over the last few weeks.

From Sunday, October 24, through Thursday, November 4, we were on tour in Europe, playing in familiar cities, such as Hamburg, Paris, and Luxembourg, and those that were new to most of the players, such as Belgrade – which the Orchestra hadn’t visited since 1959 – and Vilnius, where we just made our debut. Touring is demanding from a repertoire standpoint: the Orchestra must juggle multiple programs, which are mixed and matched in different combinations. On this particular tour there was some music that we also had to rehearse and perform while on the road. In Warsaw, our second concert featured Yulianna Avdeeva, the recently crowned winner of this year’s Chopin Piano Competition, playing Chopin’s E-minor Piano Concerto. One always feels a frisson of extra pressure when playing music that is both well known and beloved in its native land; in this case, a large ornament that hung above the stage didn’t let us forget how important, how connected to the Polish national psyche Chopin’s music is. (You are even reminded of that fact when you land at the Frederic Chopin International Airport!) Playing the orchestral accompaniment in Chopin’s concertos is far from straightforward, and in this case we had only one rehearsal, for a national broadcast, so it was even more of a challenge, but I must say that the Orchestra’s performance and the soloist’s, of course, were wonderful.

We also rehearsed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the tour’s other soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, while we were traveling, although it did help that we had just played the work in New York City with Joshua Bell.

On top of all this, on the day of the tour’s final concert, in Luxembourg, there was a preparatory rehearsal for Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the work that we were going to perform within a week, just after returning home from the tour. Elijah is a fantastic oratorio that combines moments of great drama with music of tremendous warmth and tenderness; at close to two hours and ten minutes, it’s practically an opera in its scope. I heard snatches of Mendelssohn cropping up while the musicians were warming up in the days preceding the work’s tour rehearsal; this wasn’t surprising, because it is what they do, but it was still impressive and gratifying. As if it wasn’t already enough that the musicians had to prepare this massive oratorio in the midst of everything else going on during the tour – they did so amazingly well.

You might think that the Orchestra would deserve a relatively light week upon returning from a European journey, and you would be right. That’s not how it was, though; we had the balance of the Elijah rehearsals and its three performances, and, to top it all off, we threw in a major concert at Carnegie Hall that featured Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, played by Midori, and John Adams’s Harmonielehre. This performance went extremely well, I think, so I couldn’t rightly say that we didn’t have enough rehearsal time for it. Let’s just say that I was amazed by what the musicians were able to accomplish considering how much, or little, preparation time we had.

Incidentally, I also want to observe that we have been lucky this fall to have a veritable parade of some of the greatest violinists in the world playing with us. I mentioned Midori, Kavakos, and Bell, and we also had Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. The violinistic riches continue this week with Anne-Sophie Mutter – I heard a few minutes of her rehearsal this morning, and know that New York is in for a treat.

(For more information on Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, visit