Roll over, Beethoven, you and I have to share this bed, whether you like it or not. (Phew…when did you last bathe, dude?)
A few nights ago the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra offered for its season opener what looked on paper like a suicide program. The entire concert consisted of two violin concertos, played by the same soloist, Jennifer Koh. The first half was the Beethoven concerto; the second half the Adams concerto (i.e. the 1993 piece by yours truly).
In the past Hell Mouth has chronicled various white-knuckle moments for a composer, such as surviving a first rehearsal of a new piece, or the dangers of sitting unrecognized among audience members during a performance of your music. But another rite of passage that one must endure, if you’re to be a “classical” composer, is to share the bed with one of the Large Guys. That seems to be my particular curse—having to be served up as a side dish for a Mahler symphony or, as so often seems to happen, the Beethoven Ninth.
When I first had a world premiere by a professional orchestra—“Harmonium” in 1981—it was followed by none other than Alfred Brendel playing the Emperor Concerto. When Lorin Maazel conducted “On the Transmigration of Souls” with the New York Philharmonic a year after the 9/11 attacks, he stole ten minutes from my only rehearsal to fine tune some bars in—yes, indeed—the Beethoven Ninth. When Simon Rattle did “Century Rolls” with the Berlin Philharmonic with Manny Ax, it was followed by the complete “Daphnis.” Esa-Pekka Salonen opened Disney Hall with my “Dharma at Big Sur” and—thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump THUMP thump THUMP—The Rite of Spring! Gustavo Dudamel’s gala opening of his first season in LA was “City Noir” and that obscure and never before performed Mahler First Symphony. And so on. Of course this kind of “bundling” is inevitable in a performance tradition the principal attraction of which is the endless recycling of about fifty or so standards. All you need to do to confirm this is visit the web site of the League of American Symphony Orchestras and look at their data bank of orchestra repertoire to see just how often, say, the Beethoven Seventh or Bolero get performed.
Sometimes you get crushed and you leave the concert with the impression that your piece was a chihuaha trying to take down a Great Dane, that the pairing was simply risible.
At other times, you’re left with the noble failure syndrome: “nice try, not bad for a living composer…it was so good of the orchestra to show its support for contemporary music.”
Once in a while things will actually, amazingly work out. That seems to have happened last week with Jenny Koh’s double whammy. She was aided and abetted by Joana Carneiro, the young Portuguese conductor whose personality is a warm and engaging—she comes onstage and instead of formally shaking hands she kisses the concertmaster—while her conducting style is as physically active as a welterweight boxer.
The Beethoven concerto is the essence of Olympian sublime for me. The first movement builds a 26-minute expressive arch out of the song-like motives that are so simple children could sing them. And it’s all powered by that rat-tat-tat-tat in the timpani, a little rhythmic tattoo that launches what in fact is a truly radical piece of musical invention.
That is followed by one of those middle period Beethoven slow movements of aching beauty—like the slow movement of the “Emperor”—a reserved and profoundly moving lyricism that simply has no peer in any other music. And then comes the relaxed and congenial rondo that keeps detouring into the craziest, most unexpected harmonic backwaters like a hound dog off on his own and who you can only hope will eventually appear on the trail up ahead, wondering where you’ve been.
You don’t really want to follow something like the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Believe me. And it was a good performance, one that allowed the piece to breathe and sing.
I was not at all looking forward to the “Adams concerto” after hearing the Beethoven played so beautifully. But the Berkeley audience, perhaps because at least half of them knew the composer or had seen him at one time or another in his pajamas taking out the recycling or searching for a six-pack of Sierra Nevada at Whole Foods, or—who knows? —perhaps because they are just plain ornery, stayed on, returning from the long intermission en masse.
Jenny Koh came out in her strapless salmon-colored gown and dug into my concerto, utterly committed from the very first note. Over the past ten years I’ve come to associate the piece almost automatically with Leila Josefowicz, who plays it with the kind of supreme, almost insouciant mastery that you’d normally only hear with someone playing the Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn concertos. Leila’s way with the music is physical, intense, even jazzy. She responds to the music’s rhythmic drive, and her body engages it like a break-dancer.
But this is foolish—making comparisons. I’ve been blessed to have many wonderful artists play this piece, from the world premiere by Jorja Fleezanis to Gidon Kremer, Vadim Repin, Midori and many others. And Jenny Koh found something different in the piece; her playing had fire and ice, soul and determination. She tore into some of the gnarlier passagework like Genghis Khan working his way through an opposing army, slash by slash, victim by victim. The hairs on her violin bow went flying off to the point where one wondered how many would be left for the final bar.
And Joana Carneiro went the distance with her. Sometimes the orchestra could barely hold on—my woodwind writing is at times borderline sadistic—but they all managed to keep the roller coaster on the rail. When soloist and conductor started the final movement at a click or two even faster than my indicated (already insanely fast) tempo, I thought, “I will never get into a car driven by either one of these ladies!”
And then the local composer got to do the ritual quick run around the back of the theater and make the onstage bow. When in 2002 he was supposed to make a mad dash from the back of Avery Fisher Hall to come onstage at the end of “On the Transmigration of Souls,” it took nearly five minutes to get there, and Lorin Maazel was already peering at his wristwatch. But last Thursday in Zellerbach Auditorium the reception in front of the podium was infinitely warmer and more enjoyable. There was lots of embracing and kisses, and the composer could shower compliments on conductor and soloist, two very agreeably exhausted, perspiring and happy ladies.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
All rights reserved