In Bed With Beethoven

Sep 30, 2010

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.

Comments (25)

Andrew A.
September 30, 2010

This is ironic! My newest piece has been bundled with "Firebird" and...wait for it...your "Christian Zeal and Activity!"

Which side of the bed do you prefer? And where do we put Igor?

September 30, 2010

Thanks for the great writeup! In my opinion, both pieces were equal rivals. I'll be lucky if I ever get to tackle yours. Don't forget to visit your local online sheet music source...

KC Still
September 30, 2010

I'm so sorry I missed this concert. I've had the honor of backing Jennifer Koh in concert before and she really is fun to work with! It's great to know that not only are you an awesome composer, but you had me cracking up here reading your comments. Congratulations on yet another wonderful performance of one of your works!!
KC Still

September 30, 2010

roll over, Beethoven! magnificent, dear famous living composer...

September 30, 2010

roll over, Beethoven! magnificent, dear famous living composer...

September 30, 2010

I guessing you don't expect to work with Lorin M. anytime soon.... ;-)

Nova Choe
September 30, 2010

She was fan to the tastic. seriously. So passionate and she played as if she was having active conversation with the composers of the pieces. two thumbs up!

October 1, 2010

I remember a very enjoyable and satisfying concert by the Minnesota Orchestra that paired Beethoven's 4th Symphony with your Harmonielehre. In the concert you described, the pairing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with yours made for an illuminating narrative about musical culture in general and violin playing in particular. I wish I had heard it.

October 1, 2010

Yeah yeah, try and belittle yourself.. I actually used to think you were more "Beethoven-minded." But I just bought the score to century rolls... your just a freak like Mozart. I don't see how someone could compose that in a century (rolls).

October 2, 2010

I would like to hear more of your music in Europe. Until hier, no chance.

Grant L.
October 2, 2010

Your Violin Concerto, sir, is a masterpiece. I had the great pleasure of seeing Leila Josefowicz play it with the Cincinnati Symphony. The following season she came back to play 'The Dharma at Big Sur' (with you at the podium!) followed by 'On the Transmigration of Souls'. One of the best concerts of my life.

Ed Yim
October 4, 2010

Nice one, John. It looked like a risky program but one that obviously paid off. Jenny does bring something new to it, I'm sure.

Mario D. W.
October 4, 2010

If this would have played in my location, I would have probably just gone to the second part of the program and pamper my ear with the Adams' Violin Concerto.

You've been paired with Haydn/Mendelssohn in Mexico City, and yet Harmonielehre stood above them all, the audience captivated.

(A fan of yours in Mexico City).

Edward G. Nilges
October 5, 2010

Love your blog, John!

katti nilzén
October 7, 2010

Hello...I´m writing to you about a peace called "century rolls".I heard it on the radio in Sweden and I find it very strong.I´m an artist making shortfilms and photographs.I wonder if I can use a part of that music in my latest film? I can send you a small file of it (it´s still work in progress) I will show this film ,if it comes out good , in Krakow ,Poland,at an exhibition next year.
Can you give an adress to where I can send the file so that you can say yes or no?
Thank you and I wait for your answer! Yours,Katti

Charles Keledjian
October 15, 2010

When I went to hear the Harmonielehre for the first time live at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami several years ago, it was indeed preceeded by Stravinsky Symphony in Three movements and Beethoven's Emperor concerto, in that order. It appear like half the audience just came for the pianist. They 'endured' the short Stravinsky, applauded many times the improvisational Emperor concerto, which sounded in comparision too stringy, and after the intermission, already 20% of the audience was missing. I thought, well, when they hear this they will be glad they stayed. Harmonielehre started and some old people started to walk out, even in the middle of the long climb to the climax of the first movement. I could not understand how someone would leave in the best part of something. By the time the second movement started, those who were left were sold and the climax of the second movement was an spectale of horror and amazement. When the movement ended, you could hear people breathe, and I hear some quiet 'wows'. The third movement was a great ending, but it was not my favorite anymore, because I just discovered the second. Even though competing with Beethoven is a hard task, I think you should feel very proud of sharing the stage with them, or do you prefer to share the stage with Kayne West?

October 18, 2010

I'm sure it's frustrating being paired with Beethoven all the time, and perhaps after a while it begins to feel like you're just a token on the program, but when I program concerts that pair old and new concert music it is to try and illustrate that both pieces are part of the same living tradition.

I think pairing your violin concerto with Beethoven's is a great program, and putting yours second says, to me anyway, that "yes, Beethoven is great, but look where we are now."

October 20, 2010

Looking at your top photo, I wondering if you are you suggesting, in any way, that Herr Beethoven would consider (assuming he were alive today) staying at a Motel 6? Perish the thought!

Mark Kenworthy
October 27, 2010

Kind of like having a genius composer as your support band.

I remember playing the first movement of your Violin Concerto to a friend on a drive down from Manchester to London to the Albert Hall to watch the English premiere of "The Dharma At Big Sur" and him exclaiming "What key are you in John?!" (He enjoyed it.) Nevertheless both of us were even more stunned after the concert - pretty amazing when we could listen to music all day as loud as we liked in the car on a cool drive. (okok enough superlatives)
In Manchester at the Bridgewater Hall this year various composers had the challenge of being Mahler's support composer and I heard one before Mahler's seventh which was great. (Apologies I must find out the composer's name). They played Dr Atomic Symphony with The Planets recently, tho I wish they'd play a larger Adams piece in Manchester. *Complains!* NSM please! How do you arrange these things?
Saying that you could play something from Hoodoo Zephyr at top volume at an Aphex Twin gig and no one would be any wiser.

Lynn Biederstadt
October 27, 2010

Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I've finally seen a visual backdrop worthy of your work. Was headed back from NY/Chicago to Springfield MO, flying parallel to a major state-wide thunderstorm, not cose enough to be threatening, but close enough to be magnificent. To "My Fr Knew Charles Ives: The Mountain" and "Dharma at Big Sur", mountainous clouds and flashes of lightning. The best lightshow I've ever seen. Kept thinking how right you would have found it. CHeers.

October 31, 2010

I just heard your Doctor Atomic Symphony for the first time and really enjoyed it. Thank you!

Brian Smetzer
November 9, 2010

Mr. Adams, I know this is probably the most pathetic post you have ever had on here, but here it goes anyway. I'm an Asst BD in a small town in Texas who decided to knock out the last few hours of my Master's at NSU in Louisiana. Last May, we took our senior band kids to DC and while we were there, I attended your concert at the Kennedy Center. When a subject came up for my paper this semester, I decided to cover "The Wound-Dresser", and my professors loved the idea. It's getting down to crunch time and I am having a great deal of trouble finding enough resources. I have read "Junction" and the "Reader" and found some good sources online, interviews mostly. I don't want to waste your time, but this is the only way I can think of to try and contact you to see if you could possibly point me in a new direction. I am sorry to bother you with something like this but it does seem like a great subject and I don't want to give up on it yet and rehash another story about a great, dead composer whose life has been covered down to the minute. If I don't hear from you or any of your fans, I do want to say best of luck in the future and the more I hear your work, the more I am starting to get it and appreciate it. Thanks, Brian

November 15, 2010

You obviously understand nothing about biography, and your review of my BEGIN AGAIN is preposterous.

charles thiesen
November 22, 2010

I probably understand less than you do about biography, and I definitely understand less than you do about music, but I'm going to comment anyway because commenting on your blog is like commenting on Beethoven's blog.

I blog about music, too, and my second post was about your violin concerto. I love it. I'm sorry. I'm tired of Beethoven (I know this is a character flaw and if I paid better attention I'd still be ravished, but there it is.) When you're two hundred fifty years old your violin concerto will be as much of chestnut as Beethoven's is now. I bet you'll be sharing the program with him then too.

It can't be all bad.

Anyway, thanks for writing the stuff you write.

December 16, 2012

Mr. Adams, although I may have lofty goals for my age, someday I will program your works as much as possible. Also, on my word, I will do my damnedest to make sure the audience leaves with an equal sense of appreciation for your works as well as any Rites of Spring, Beethoven 5's, Sibelius 2's, etc. etc.

You're the Man
Best regards

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