Thursday, December 1, 2005

Chronicle of October 2005

October 1

Premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic (libretto by Peter Sellars). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA. 'As part of her initiative called The Faust Project, [Pamela] Rosenberg had approached [John] Adams with the idea of writing an opera on a 20th-century American Faust: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who presided over the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bombs. Though initially hesitant, Mr. Adams, who thinks big, could not resist. Nor could his longtime collaborator, the director Peter Sellars. In a risky stroke Mr. Sellars assembled a libretto from interviews with the project participants, history books, conversation transcripts, declassified documents and poetry. His cut-and-paste job has produced a libretto of heightened emotional resonance and surprising dramatic continuity. With Mr. Adams's haunting score, what results is a complex, searching and painfully honest if somewhat problematic opera. Doctor Atomic is the ultimate waiting game. It begins in June 1945 as the physicists, scientists and military personnel who are working at Los Alamos, N.M., are poised to test the first atomic bomb. The rest of the two-and-a-half-hour opera takes place on the night before and the morning of July 16, the day the first bomb was tested at the site that Oppenheimer, inspired by a John Donne poem, called Trinity. In a sense, not much happens: only that Oppenheimer and the other participants grapple with their consciences as the countdown to detonation, quite literally, commences. The Oppenheimer of Doctor Atomic is a true Faustian figure, a questing, cultured, brilliant and arrogant man, vividly portrayed by the charismatic Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who sings with burnished tone and makes every word count. As Mr. Sellars explained in a preperformance talk, Oppenheimer understood that by pushing science to new limits he would unleash barely imaginable forces in the world and even more fearsome forces within mankind. But he willed himself to turn off the part of his brain that processes ethical qualms about his work. The 'best people' in Washington will make these decisions for us scientists, he argues. In his talk, Mr. Sellars bemoaned today's culture, in which the government and the news media simplify everything with 'ridiculous crudeness.' Welcome to opera, he said, where we do not shy from ambiguity and complexity. Still, it takes great music to achieve this. Doctor Atomic, Mr. Adams's third full-fledged opera, may be his most inventive and emotional score to date, and the conductor Donald Runnicles drew a keen, compelling and assured performance from the orchestra. In his days as a fledgling composer, Mr. Adams rejected the academic atonality he was steeped in as a student and embraced minimalism, jazz, electronics, and experimental styles. But once over his rebellion, he increasingly allowed himself to incorporate elements of the more complex techniques he had been exposed to. In Doctor Atomic, Mr. Adams, 58, breaks new ground in that sphere. Whole spans of the orchestral and choral music tremble with textural density. Stacked-up clusters and polytonal harmonies have stunning bite and pungency. Skittish instrumental lines come close to sounding like riffs from a serialist score. The vocal writing is wondrously varied, sometimes jittery and naturalistic, sometimes melismatic and elegiac. You hear evocations of sci-fi film scores and bursts of Varèsian frenzy. When he needs to propel the music forward, Mr. Adams, true to form, creates a din of pummeling rhythms, fractured meters and jolting repeated figures: call it atomic minimalism. Yet tension runs even through the long, ruminative, wistful episodes, like the poignant bedtime scene between Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty. A sensitive and long-suffering alcoholic, Kitty was portrayed with touching vulnerability by the mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson, though her diction was frustratingly mushy. Like Wagner's Erda, Kitty sees all too well the implications of the work that consumes her dazzling but remote husband. It seems right that the couple sometimes converse in a private language of quotations from sensual Baudelaire poems, for they cannot face each other with unblinking honesty. There are Wagnerian touches to the music beyond its orchestral lushness and bigness, in, for example, Mr. Adams's way of using the orchestra to comment on the story and the characters. One telling instance comes in a short scene with Gen. Leslie Groves, the blustery Army commander on the project. For a moment Groves forgets the mission and is drawn by Oppenheimer into a conversation about his weight problem. Dynamically portrayed by the husky bass Eric Owens, Groves shows Oppenheimer his calorie counter and talks about his diet regimen, which is not going well. Groves's chatter is enshrouded in luminous harmonies and pleading melodic lines, as if the orchestra sees the one person with the power to postpone the test in a fleeting moment of human frailty and tries to talk sense to him. Act I closes with a transfixing scene for Oppenheimer, when he recites that Donne sonnet, Batter my heart, three-person'd God, an abject surrender to God. Mr. Adams's setting is like some contemporary evocation of an intricately contrapuntal Renaissance song with a tortured melodic line and unstable modal harmonies. Other standouts in the cast include the baritone Richard Paul Fink, who uses his stentorian singing to mask the manipulative ways of the physicist Edward Teller, who would become Oppenheimer's nemesis during the McCarthy years. The elegant baritone James Maddalena (who created the title role in Mr. Adams's "Nixon in China") portrays the meteorologist Jack Hubbard, who must suffer the tirades of General Groves. The mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton made an impact in two mysterious scenes as the Oppenheimers' maid, who sings totemic songs to the couple's children. The tenor Thomas Glenn brought his sweet voice and boyish innocence to the role of Robert Wilson, a young idealistic physicist plagued with guilt about the test. Alas, the musical performance was troubled by balance problems, which were not helped by the use of amplification. Electronic elements have long been part of the Adams style. Since the large orchestra was electronically enhanced, the solo singers had to wear wireless microphones. Introducing amplification into opera is Mr. Adams's prerogative. But if you are going to abandon 400 years of tradition and amplify singers to get the balances right, then get the balances right. All other aspects of Mr. Sellars's production are remarkable. Adrianne Lobel's striking sets use movable columns and sliding lab tables filled with plutonium cores and other gadgets, set against a silhouette of New Mexico mountains. The costume designer Dunya Ramicova dresses the chorus as 1940's scientists, technicians and workers, who remind us that the Manhattan Project employed thousands of workers. The choreographer Lucinda Childs uses dancers to "physicalize the anxiety of waiting," in Mr. Sellars's words, and lend a quality of abstraction to the affecting and graceful staging. The waiting, of course, culminates in the detonation. Before he composed a note Mr. Adams knew that any attempt to depict an atomic explosion in music would be clichéd on arrival. His solution is ingenious. As the moment approaches and the battering-ram orchestra seems to be sounding inside your head, suddenly all goes quiet and we experience the detonation as if we were 200 miles away in Los Alamos. The music is delicate, strange, melodically dispersed, harmonically tentative. You sense the atmosphere crackling, the world changing. The calm voice of a Japanese woman is heard. We know what comes next. But that is for a sequel. Maybe Ms. Rosenberg is already on the case" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/3/05].

October 11

Juilliard Orchestra, led by Dennis Russell Davies, in The Juilliard School presents its 100th Anniversary Concert. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "And that was it for hoopla. There were no speeches, ceremonies, awards, potted-history films -- just a concert, with a newly commissioned work as its centerpiece, and scores by Webern and Schubert at either end. Some listeners may have wanted a greater sense of occasion, but simply showing what the school's young musicians can do made tremendous sense. The piece commissioned for the concert was the Manhattan Trilogy by Einojuhani Rautavaara, the patriarch of contemporary Finnish composers. Mr. Rautavaara is much loved internationally these days, and for good reason. But it would be unnatural not to wonder why this quintessentially American conservatory didn't program a new American work as the main draw of its anniversary concert -- or even as one of the outlying scores. Perhaps the presence on the podium of Mr. Davies, a particularly eloquent interpreter of American music, made the absence of any all the more puzzling. Maybe it's a silly question. There are new American scores elsewhere in the season, and at this point, American composers are doing well enough in the world not to need a boost at every local celebration. There is, in any case, a Juilliard connection here: Mr. Rautavaara was a student there in the 1950's, and his three-movement, 20-minute work is a reminiscence of the hopes and anxieties of his student years. It is a wistful, conservative work. The outer movements, Daydreams and Dawn, are cast in consonant but freely modulating chord progressions, with achingly beautiful solo lines darting through the thick textures. Even the central Nightmares movement, though darker and more freely dissonant, often has a lush quality. If Mr. Rautavaara is remembering tensions and uncertainties here, as the program notes suggest, he is doing it from a comfortable distance. Mr. Davies let his musicians revel in Mr. Rautavaara's rich textures, and they played it as if they had lived with it for years. It sounded, in any case, like the most thoroughly rehearsed of the three scores on the program, although the performances of Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 6) and the Schubert Ninth Symphony offered little reason for complaint. There were, for example, fleetingly tentative moments in the brass during the outer movements of the Webern, but the salient feature of the performance was the fluidity and seamlessness with which these young players moved through the constantly changing textures" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/13/05].

October 20

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Can Pierre Boulez ever have imagined that four short piano pieces from his steely, rigorously dodecaphonic and anti-establishment "Notations" would be played as an encore during a recital at Carnegie Hall? And who would have thought that this radical early Boulez work would sound so right coming after an exhilarating performance of Schumann's crowd-pleasing Carnaval? But this is what Pierre-Laurent Aimard pulled off in his stunning . . . recital . . . . As those tuned in to contemporary-music circles know, in 1977 Mr. Aimard, then just 19, became a founding member of Mr. Boulez's avant-garde Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris, remaining with the group for 18 years. But since then, Mr. Aimard has been branching into standard repertory, winning wide acclaim for his extraordinary pianism without losing his identity as a musician immersed in his own time. Mr. Aimard enjoys playing old and new works together in provocative contexts. He opened this fascinating program with four of Debussy's Préludes, Book I. Seated at the piano, he waited for well over a minute, until stragglers in the audience arrived and the house was quiet, so he could start the mysterious and searching Delphic Dancers, which begins in a whisper. In this haunting performance, with harmonically unhinged chords voiced so tellingly and textures boldly blurred, Debussy's alluring prelude sounded like the radical work it was and, in a sense, still is. The Wind on the Plain followed, sounding here like an onrushing intimation of a Ligeti étude. Mr. Aimard then began the hushed Sounds and Perfumes Swirl in the Evening Air, but stopped just moments into it because something else was swirling in air at Carnegie Hall: coughing. He begged the audience's pardon and reminded everyone that coughing is "the enemy of music." With the house now utterly quiet, he continued, then ended the set with a jocular yet curiously unsettling account of Puck's Dance. Having presented Debussy as a modernist, he played Mr. Boulez's staggeringly difficult Piano Sonata No. 1, written in 1946 when the composer was in his early 20's and instigating an assault on the musical status quo in Paris. Even those who find Mr. Boulez's serial works baffling had to have responded to the subtlety, color, rhythmic bite and rhapsodic sweep of Mr. Aimard's arresting performance. He then gave a coolly beautiful and commanding account of Ravel's formidable Gaspard de la Nuit, played without a hint of sentimentality, never milking this inventive score for virtuosic flash. The Schumann was not what you might have expected. Mr. Aimard played with plenty of Romantic impetuosity and even a judicious use of rubato. Yet this was also a bracing and vigorous take on Schumann's suite of dances, evocations and portraits. In introducing the Boulez encore, Mr. Aimard explained that, like the Schumann work, Notations is also a suite of short character pieces, all derived from a few basic motifs. The audience must have gotten the connection, for on this night, Boulez won as many bravos as Schumann, thanks to Mr. Aimard's ingenious artistry" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/22/05].

October 29

Christopher Taylor plays Gyorgy Ligeti's Etudes. Miller Theatre, New York, NY. "Do not make assumptions about the American pianist Christopher Taylor from his bookish, gangly and endearingly nerdy appearance. Beneath that professorial persona is a demonically intense artist with a stunning technique and searching intellect. In recent seasons Mr. Taylor, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has been finding the Miller Theater at Columbia University an ideal place to try out programs that most mainstream concert presenters would never go for. In the process he has attracted a following, which explains why a capacity crowd was drawn to . . . hear his recital devoted to the complete études for piano by Gyorgy Ligeti. Surely, most of this noticeably young audience could not have been familiar with these cutting-edge works by this Hungarian master composer. Just knowing that Mr. Taylor was up to something again was apparently enough to fill the hall. At the Miller in 2001 Mr. Taylor gave an exhilarating performance of Messiaen's complete Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, some of the most visionary and challenging music ever written for the piano. Last year he returned for a program of contemporary études, 27 demanding works by George Perle, William Bolcom, Derek Bermel and Mr. Ligeti (Book 1, the first six, of the études, composed in 1985, though the composer, who is 82, has spoken of writing more). While Mr. Ligeti has written about being frustrated with his own limited piano technique, Mr. Taylor, in his program note, writes that producing marvels like these études requires "complete mastery of the instrument's potential as well as flawless intuition concerning the hand's abilities." Mr. Ligeti points to unusual sources of inspiration for these works, including the polyrhythmic music of sub-Saharan Africa, the jazz composers Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, the mechanistic piano pieces of Conlon Nancarrow, and even the fractal geometry of Mandelbrot and Peitgen, which particularly interests Mr. Taylor, who graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Harvard in 1992. There are surprisingly serene episodes in several of the études, like the wistful opening section of White on White, with its churchly harmonies, and the brittle, gently clanking passages in Fém, which suggests music made by breezes blowing through a pagoda. Some études have less overt challenges, like Vertige, in which the pianist must execute twisting strands of bizarre, hard-to-finger chromatic runs. But most of the études are vehemently intense and ferociously difficult, like the crazed À bout de souffle, with its pummeling chords and arm-blurring repetitions, or The Devil's Staircase, which makes Liszt's Mephisto Waltz seem like a jolly little Hungarian dance. Mr. Taylor played them all with incisive rhythm, lucid textures and, where the music allowed, alluring colors. Still, the sheer effort involved in playing these works was something to behold" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/31/06].