Click here to read my review of John Adams’ new oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Friday night in Disney Hall. San Francisco Classical Voice, June 1, 2012.
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Brilliant review, Tim …
You are very kind, sir.
Any thoughts, anyone, on what kind of people would buy tickets for a John Adams premiere (music that by definition they don’t know) and then leave before hearing it all (knowing I assume as well that the composer himself is in attendance)? I imagine the place was sold out, meaning some people weren’t able to attend because of those who got the tickets first. Something about buying tickets to what you know is a premiere and then leaving before you’ve heard it confuses me … 🙂
I’ll chime in. I think a lot of people had season subscription tickets. They just buy the Thursday series or the Friday series, and go. Perhaps they choose a series for a day of the week, or because they like MOST of the music offered on it. But then the Adams comes along … and they leave at intermission.
Act 1, by the way, performed before intermission, was 85 minutes long … already a full evening of music. Act 2 didn’t start until 10 p.m. the night I went.
On Thursday night, it ended right around 11pm, translating to a 3hr experience including intermission. I asked the LA Phil PR folks for an official timing, and they don’t have one yet, but were using 135 minutes as a working number. I’d be interested to know what it was in reality.
I have the timing in my notes for Friday night’s performance. Started at 8:10, with intermission at 9:35 (85 minutes). Second half started at 10 and ended at 11:05 (65 minutes). If my math is correct, and the sisters of St. Edward’s would be very disappointed if it wasn’t, that’s 150 minutes.
My timings for the two acts: Thu. 80+65, Fri. 83+67, Sat. 82+67, Sun. 82+68.
No doubt, some of those who left at intermission did so simply because the length of the first act, combined with the considerable weight of its musical and verbal content, made it feel like the concert should have been over by then. Also, some of John Adams fans became such based on his earlier works that were much closer to minimalism than this piece. It’s like with Woody Allen: “Why don’t you keep making movies that are more like your early funny ones?”. Personally, i am glad that his music does not sound like “easy listening” anymore. This oratorio has some truly beautiful and powerful musical moments in it.
The reviewer for the New York Times described John Adams’ composition as “churning but ultimately limp, with moments of beauty among the longueurs.” I’m assuming that a major reason the hall was much less full after the intermission was because of all the “longeurs.”
I know I wasn’t too impressed with Mr Adams’ “City Noir” piece from over 2 years ago, and that is a comparatively accessible and mainstream (or “middlebrow”) bit of music. So when I see the intelligentsia often fawning over Adams, I regrettably feel like I’m in a crowd of people, the emperor is moseying down the street, and everyone around me is gushing over his new clothes. Or is that an unfair reaction? Is music from composers like John Adams sort of a cultural form of castor oil, and it’s supposed to be good for me? It therefore wasn’t meant to be too memorable and enjoyable, and to go down easily, but it’s good for me nonetheless.
In today’s culture, more than ever before, it seems that for something to earn the seal of approval, it has to be quite obscure, dark, inaccessible, “sophisticated” and very, very esoteric. In the world of visual arts, for decades now, there has been mostly abstract, non-representational or chaotic images getting thumbs up from the taste makers. Is that part of today’s culture analogous to the world of modern orchestral compositions, or visa versa?
I notice so many of the pieces from this era (music written by Esa Pekka Salonen, as one example) remind me of the part of a movie score where the character is being stalked by a rapist, or is seconds away from being kidnapped or murdered. Or the part of the movie where the creepy ghost is about to unleash its terror. So is such orchestral music meant to be gloomy, or is it actually just very, very au courant? Is it sort of like hipsters who favor wearing nothing but black and putting on a pair of sunglasses even at night?
I recall Tim saying in a review some time ago that a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, perhaps because it has been played so many times in the past and therefore becomes almost a cliche, didn’t hold his attention or enthusiasm. But such compositions are still in the active rotation decades after their creation. I don’t know if the same will hold true for quite a bit of today’s music written by the late 20th, early 21st centuries answer to classical composers of yore.
The irony in all this I still think it’s wonderful and commendable when the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” concerts are well attended. And when I read about some orchestras having seasons where they perform nothing but the war horses — the old tried and true — that sounds dull and lazy to me. But I’m also somewhat guilty of an “art for art’s sake” reaction, and do feel ambivalent about it being closely aligned with the idea that “castor oil is good for you!”
Well, I haven’t heard Adams’s new piece but I was sort of blown away by the sheer novelty and power of the music in El Nino as well as the intelligence and interest of its libretto. But then The Other Mary may not hold a candle to it. Still, it would be a shame if some of this past weekends’ attendees are someday asked by their grandchildren, Did you attend the premiere of The Other Mary, and they’ll have to say, ‘Yes, … half of it.’ I wonder if we sometimes have the expectation that our right is to be continually entertained and if any other experience seems to be occurring, we should leave quickly and immediately do something else. Also, I’m sure Mr. Adams has a thick enough hide, but isn’t it sort of rude to head for the exits when he’s sitting there?
Leaving the auditorium while music is being performed is certainly rude, but during an intermission i don’t think it is – it may be unwise in certain cases but not really rude, because it does not interfere either with the performers doing their job or with the audience’s listening experience.
Speaking of “longueurs” now, that was quite an extensive comment by Deborah, especially considering that we are discussing a piece of which she has never heard a single note. Her main point may have been relevant half a century ago when tonal and accessible new music was almost non-existent, because it was frowned upon and not considered “serious” by most contemporary classical music luminaries of the time. But over the last few decades the tide has turned decisively in the other direction and now there is plenty of clearly tonal and reasonably accessible new music being written and performed – and often critically praised – practically everywhere.
Does a work of art have to “go down easily” in order to “be enjoyable”? Apparently so for Deborah and, sadly, for many other concertgoers. Fortunately for the future of our art, quite a substantial number (albeit still a minority) of avid classical music listeners demand and expect more than – or, if and when we are lucky, something other than – easy accessibility from new music, and they are able to appreciate – and yes, ENJOY – hearing good new pieces of various complexity and intensity.
I think the new Adams piece is both complex and accessible, a nice balancing act. It’s (too) long, yes, but I wouldn’t know what MUSIC to cut, at least after one hearing. (It’s kind of like Wagner in that way … it’s all good, there’s just too much of it.) I have a fair idea about what TEXTS I’d cut though.
What i like about it also is the fact that he did not seem to have a goal of achieving this “nice balancing act” but arrived at it naturally through his progression as a composer and because of his particularly strong interest in the subject of this oratorio. During rehearsals and performances last week, John looked to me more PASSIONate (forgive the “pun”) about this piece than i have ever seen him with his other compositions. But i agree with you about the text – it probably needs much more cutting than the music does.
But over the last few decades the tide has turned decisively in the other direction and now there is plenty of clearly tonal and reasonably accessible new music being written and performed – and often critically praised – practically everywhere.
I wasn’t focusing on oh-so-hip, atonal music, full of percussion and brass, as much as I was thinking of newer compositions in general that tend to be overly gloomy, angst-ridden or lugubrious—again, using the example of what one would hear in the score of a movie set to a scene where someone is about to be murdered or brutally beaten. Or compositions of the current era that have too many passages devoid of the type of melody that will stick in one’s head.
If major portions of Mr. Adams’ composition are deemed as containing a lot of “longueurs,” I’m guessing that’s due to their being full of notes that aren’t exactly — and dispensing with erudite-slanted terminology — catchy or hummable.
Apparently so for Deborah and, sadly, for many other concertgoers. Fortunately for the future of our art, quite a substantial number (albeit still a minority) of avid classical music listeners demand and expect more than…
We’re dealing with fractions of a fraction, a tiny minority within a small minority. Even those who happily tune into very accessible, if not cliched, classical music, or any composition that revolves around the sound of a full orchestra in general, are inundated by people who favor other forms of music, particularly country, rap, jazz, pop and urban contemporary. So if much of the public were browsing the comments here, they’d either go “huh?!” or would be amused.by what they’d perceive as esoteric patter from a group of “elitists.”
Precisely. And i am sharing what i know.
“catchy or hummable”
These two “prerequisites” are not even close to be synonymous with high quality – in any art.
And yes, Deborah, we know we are a small minority, but that does not mean that our values are false – only that they are not universal.
The lowest denominator will probably always be more popular, but striving for it is definitely the wrong way to go if we are interested in reaching the highest possible level of human potential, which is the only goal worth setting for ourselves.
These two “prerequisites” are not even close to be synonymous with high quality – in any art.
Most certainly, for quite a few tastemakers and creative sophisticates perceive anything that’s too approachable — and “middle of the road” — as a sign that it somehow lacks the required complexity and seriousness. That unless something is esoteric, and perhaps even rather inscrutable, it runs the risk of being too accessible to the masses. That it will be too middlebrow or, worse, lowbrow. So being as sophisticated as possible is very crucial and ennobling to them.
I guess the opposite extreme to this are all the people who adore Rachmaninoff, Liberace and paintings of clowns and bull fighters on black velvet.
Since when is sophistication a dirty word? Definitely not in my book it ain’t.
Imho, the main reason we love classical music more than we do other kinds is its ability to stimulate not only our ears but also our “hearts” and/or “souls”, as well as – and yes, this is crucial – our brains too. Without that, one might as well just keep listening to Friday by Rebecca Black.
By the way, i do enjoy the best of Rachmaninoff and consider accessibility neither a handicap nor an advantage in what we call classical music. Sophistication on the other hand is clearly an advantage and when someone manages to make sophistication accessible i have absolutely nothing against it.
Since when is sophistication a dirty word?
When it’s sophistication for sophistication’s sake. Or the twin to “art for art’s sake.”
Without that, one might as well just keep listening to Friday by Rebecca Black.
That makes me think of what apparently are various upper-level, well-educated people throughout society who — based on certain postings at, for example, the huffingtonpost.com, and regular stirrings in even more prominent parts of the media — continue to watch and/or participate in (as guest hosts or performers) the late-night TV show hosted by NBC since 1975. I’m referring to “Saturday Night Live.” That program has been dreadful for much of its history. Yet its continued existence, and it often even being nominated for Emmy Awards, and the lack of commentary from those upper-level observers on how bad it truly is does make me think of the phenomenon of the “Emperor has new clothes.”
That peculiar aspect of a small slice of our modern culture can be applied to other facets of society, including the world of art, both visual and performing.
This conversation seems to be going in a few different directions at once, but let me jump in anyway. It’s Friday, Friday, Friday, and I have a few minutes.
Quote above: Since when is sophistication a dirty word? When it’s sophistication for sophistication’s sake. Or the twin to “art for art’s sake.”
That doesn’t mean that sophistication itself is bad. I doubt John Adams was trying to create “The Other Mary” as something that was sophisticated for sophistication’s sake. On the other hand, I don’t doubt he was trying to create something sophisticated.
I concur with MarK. The best classical music — whether it’s written by Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski, or countless others — is sophisticated. It appeals to the head as well as heart and gut. There’s some stuff written by those composers and others that is appealing but isn’t as smart or clever or complex or groundbreaking, and while we might appreciate and enjoy those pieces, we don’t admire them in the same way as their better stuff.
To take it further, the best popular music does the same. Gershwin, Porter, the Beatles, U2, among others — all created some music that is both accessible AND intelligent.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of really brainless pop music that is entertaining as hell that I readily enjoy (how can you not laugh at a song that starts: “Can we forget about the things I said when I was drunk? I didn’t mean to call you that.” and has a catchy riff to boot). On the flip side, there’s more than enough over-intellectualized pop music that is tedious (e.g. pretty much anything by R.E.M. starting with “Automatic For the People” to the present). The difference is that a good pop song doesn’t have to be smart or sophisticated; good classical music does.
Can some contemporary classical composers write something that tries too hard to intellectualize and ends up being unappealing ? Sure. But there are also others that try to create something that is accessible that in the end just panders. While I appreciate the attempt one way or the other, bad music is bad music regardless of how it got there.
BTW: Sophistication doesn’t have to be complex. There is a lot of stuff — classical music, pop music, architecture, hamburgers — that is sophisticated and complex, but there are also many examples of things that are sophisticated and straight-forward. .
As far as Saturday Night Live goes, I have to disagree with you there too. The show has always been hit or miss, and while SNL has had it’s share of horrible skits, there have always been gems too. Christopher Walken as “The Continental;” Cornelius Timberlake coming to Ellis Island dreaming what his great-great-grandsone might do in the new world; the “REALLY??!!!” segment of Weekend Update; the Barry Gibb talkshow; the alternate “Single Ladies” video. . . . just a handful of recent winners.
IMHO: The best stuff from SNL the past 5+ years has been their Digital Shorts. “Lazy Sunday.” “Natalie Portman Raps,” “XXXX in a box,” “Throw it on the ground,” and others transcend the show and have become iconic, partly because they were groundbreaking in their own way, and partly because they are funny as heck. You might not enjoy it yourself, but that doesn’t alter their impact.
Excuse me, I have to go. This discussion is making me want to go to YouTube and watch Michael Bolton sing “This is the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
CK, I’m fascinated by the idea of you, who I’m guessing is, yes, rather sophisticated and educated, watching such a pathetic TV show like Saturday Night Live, and apparently with enough devotion that you’re aware of many of its skits and features. You might just as well tell me you also have paintings by Thomas Kinkade hanging on your walls and consider the Olive Garden to be haute cuisine. I know that comes off as sarcastic and snooty, but I’m truly amazed whenever I come across such unexpected contradictions in people.
By the way, I’m currently listening to KUSC.org’s broadcast of a concert from April conducted by John Adams leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They’re performing his Violin Concerto, and if that piece is about as unforgettable as his recent “Gospel” is, then regrettably I have to say the new work probably isn’t tremendously memorable.
I try to envision these modern compositions in the context of the type of movie they’d fit. Far too many of the pieces by John Adams would be ideal for films that depict lots of stress, angst, discord, heartache and even violence. Certainly not happy and sunny scenes—because such a milieu wouldn’t be sophisticated enough?
Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 9 also is being performed, and parts of it make me think of the title score of “North by Northwest” by Bernard Herrmann. Glass’s work is actually quite approachable to me, more appealing than Adams’ Concerto. Since I’m evoking cinema, Adams’ “City Noir” piece from not too long ago seemed like a non-compelling, drawn-out variation of the opening music for the famous movie “Chinatown.” So is Mr. Adams less capable of putting together notes that have a bit more appeal in the way that Hollywood’s Jerry Goldsmith did? Notes that contain a bit of, again, memorability?
I am full of contradictions. As I’ve been told by others, I have unsuspected depth.
While I am neither a fan of Thomas Kinkade nor Olive Garden, I don’t begrudge people who do, just as I understand that there are people like you who don’t enjoy SNL. People are allowed to have varied and eclectic tastes. God bless America.
I find it interesting that on one hand, you criticize the so-called intelligentia for allegedly championing music that inherently does not have wide appeal or is immediately accessible. On the other hand, you show disdain for populist choices in other aspects of life (Kinkade and Olive Garden). That seems to be a contradiction right there, the kind that you find unexpected in other people.
Haven’t seen much of SNL for quite a few years now, simply because i generally watch very little of major-network TV (which is nothing more or less than the result of my personal choice of priorities that i am neither proud nor ashamed of), but i do know that the show was often brilliant – as far as fairly light entertainment goes of course – in the 1970s and sometimes in the 1980s too.
No one here praises “sophistication for sophistication’s sake” or proposes that it is a decisive factor in evaluating new music. However, what we (people like CKDH, i and, if i am not mistaken, Tim) are actually saying is that sophistication is indeed a positive quality in classical music that enriches it and makes it more interesting.
Furthermore, complexity imho is not a dirty word either. When a piece requires several hearings to appreciate it fully, which many if not most great ones do, there is nothing wrong with it, but may actually make such a piece more enduring if it is a truly inspired composition.
Sophistication in an artist is a form of aspiration, and I admire it, even if it doesn’t always work out in the art.
No one here praises “sophistication for sophistication’s sake”
Maybe it isn’t that as much as it’s a sense that if something is too melodious and joyful, it runs the risk of looking bourgeoisie, non-serious, un-hip, unfashionable.
So, the only type of music that is “memorable” for Deborah and listeners like her is the kind that is “happy and sunny” as well as, apparently, “too melodious [whatever that means] and joyful”… Really? How ironically sad that is! In fact, such standards have an uncanny resemblance to those that were demanded, under the title of “socialist realism”, by the communist party and its dear leaders, from all composers in the Stalinist Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union.
Not many great masterpieces of the past can meet such requirements – certainly not the Requiems by Mozart and Verdi or the “Funeral March” Sonata by Chopin, not to mention the Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the Fourteenth Symphony by Shostakovich. As for music written during the last few decades, the truth is that John Adams has produced probably more good “upbeat” stuff than most other classical composers.
Anyone remember this screed, by me?: http://artsblog.ocregister.com/2008/05/21/what-the-classical-average-listener-wants/#more-2117
Thanks for re-posting. As well said as it could have been said.
So, the only type of music that is “memorable” for Deborah and listeners like her
MarK, I can’t speak for others, but you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said that in order for music to be memorable it also has to be happy and sunny. The quality of something being — and here’s a very bourgeois term — catchy transcends many boundaries. Some of the most memorable segments of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” are certainly not happy and sunny. So memorability is what I’m most interested in, and too many parts of John Adams’ various compositions (much less that of pieces by Arnold Schoenberg) lack that quality. Consequently, it’s very easy for something from such composers to be full of “longueurs.”
And, Tim, in terms of your essay from a few years ago, a phrase that has long stood out in my mind is: “While there may not be the highbrow in the lowbrow, there’s always a bit of lowbrow in the highbrow.” That observation is best illustrated to me when some of this society’s iintelligentsia (in the world of politics and culture—and based on the attention or chatter from them I’ve observed for years in the media) continues to watch — if not also be fans of — a dreadfully hokey show like “Saturday Night Live.”
the truth is that John Adams has produced probably more good “upbeat” stuff than most other classical composers.
MarK, can you list those pieces for me. I ask that not to be rhetorical or as a challenge, but because I’m truly curious what you perceive are works from Adams that, in your mind, are upbeat or memorable.
Not MarK, but I’ll chime in . . . for starters, try Short Ride in a Fast Machine (easily found on YouTube) and Naive & Sentimental Music. Haven’t listened to Harmonielehre in a while, but if memory serves, that would also qualify. MarK and others probably know more.
Thanks for that link, Tim – i enjoyed rereading your article. You made several very accurate observations there. And, somewhat surprisingly for me, i still agree with the comment that i made over four years ago.
There is a very informative and, as usual, well-written extended review by Alex Ross in the June 18 issue of The New Yorker. It describes the piece and its performance intelligently and at length.
Here are some of John’s pieces i can recall at the moment that, if i remember correctly, are either mostly upbeat or contain substantial upbeat sections: Shaker Loops, The Chairman Dances, Tromba Lontana, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Slonimsly’s Earbox, Century Rolls, Naive and Sentimental Music, The Dharma at Big Sur, El Nino, Absolute Jest, Shaker Loops,Chamber Symphony, Gnarly Buttons, Grand Pianola Music, Road Movies. Most of these are, at the very least, good solid well-written works – and some are more and/or better than that. Since this list includes about half of his music with which i am personally acquainted, i am sure there is more such high-quality upbeat stuff among his pieces that i have not heard yet.
Understanding that music does not have to be “sunny” in order to be “memorable” is a good start. But stating that certain piece “lacks that quality” makes no sense unless we can agree on what “memorability” is and how to measure it – i doubt very much that we can. To me, Messiaen’s “St. Francis of Assisi” as well as Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies by Lutoslawski (mostly atonal and partly disturbing music) are all very memorable and enjoyable. On the other hand, there is music that is much too memorable – it is easy to remember and hard to get rid of once it gets stuck in one’s head – without being particularly interesting: Jingle Bells, anyone? Who needs that kind of “memorability”?? Not me.
Thanks for taking the time to assemble that list. However, “Shaker Loops” merely confirms my sense as to why Adams is easily shrugged off — or ignored — by much of the public. That composition is quite tedious and monotonous. It makes all the parts of Ravel’s “Balero,” by comparison, seem totally different or unrecognizable from beginning to end.
“Tromba Lontana” is full of angst and isn’t too memorable. “Century Rolls” has a relentless sound to me and could be the score of a movie about a person who’s going through a mid-life crisis. “Gnarly Buttons” is full of whimsy, sort of what I’d associate with the music in the classic short films of the 1960s from designers Charles and Ray Eames. But as a stand-alone presentation, it’s not something I’d necessarily go out of my way to listen to.
“Grand Pianola Music” has some nice segments interspersed with goofy bombast, while “Road Movies” is full of nervous energy but devoid of memorability—at least that which is positive. However, I do like the fast, upbeat tempo of “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” It does evoke a lot of frenzy, but — even more since most of it doesn’t conjure up a scene where someone is about to be murdered — I do like it.
“Slonimsky’s Earbox” has more of that hectic, nervous sound quality that I associate with lots of newer classical pieces. It also includes a bit of solemnity thrown in for good measure. I guess if one is into jittery energy, Slonimsky can be deemed memorable. In my case, a little of that composition does go a long way.
All in all, John Adams is an acquired taste. If he is supposed to be good for the listener, then I’ll have to say he’s an aural version of cod liver oil.
Others, of course, hear much of it quite differently. And the “memorability” litmus test is still useless since it means different things to different people and there is no way of measuring it objectively. The only adjective in these descriptions that can be reasonably called truly objective is “repetitive”. This is indeed a feature of John’s music that was particularly prevalent in his earlier works – but one of the reasons i liked TGATTOM was that it was less repetitive than his previous pieces. On the other hand, is repetitiveness by itself always so horrible in music? Our lives are repetitive: we do the same things – sleeping, eating, washing, as well as a few other actions – every day, and nothing is more repetitive than our breathing; yet no one complains about that as far as i can tell.
Here is an example: Prelude in C Major from the WTC by J. S. Bach. It has no melody (no wonder other composers like for instance Gounod who should have known better could not resist adding a melody to it – the result is certainly pretty but not nearly as sublime as Bach’s original) and practically no rhythm to speak of (the piece consists of 544 absolutely even equal notes). The entire piece is nothing but harmony broken up into simple eight-note patterns (five-note ascending arpeggios with last three notes repeated) – 64 of them to be exact – that are always repeated before the harmony changes gently, with a tiny (about eight seconds long) codetta added at the end. On paper it looks like it should be dreadfully static and awfully boring but somehow it isn’t. It fails Deborah’s “requirements” miserably on several counts – zero melody and repetitions galore; yet it is in fact a beautiful musical gem by one of the, if not the, greatest composers ever.
No one here – least of all, yours truly – is suggesting that Adams is a new Bach. However, “acquired taste” is defined as something that can only be fully appreciated after repeated exposure to it, and perhaps this may be true in case of John’s music – for some people, that is, while others do like it or even love it more immediately. Since TGATTOM is a more complex piece than most of his earlier works, it probably requires at least a couple of hearings for many listeners. In any case, that in itself is not an indication of the composer’s failure, but may actually be a sign of refinement and quality, for such a substantial piece of music.
Gosh! I’m decidedly mediocre at best! I thoroughly enjoyed the all-Mozart night with Gil Shaham at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. O! the shame.
Or maybe it was the wine.
When I recount the comments here for my husband (we saw Gospel last week in Lucerne) I’m going to refer to Deborah as Debbie as I’m sure it would infuriate her. To each their own, Deb.