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On The Transmigration Of Souls – 9/11 Commemoration by John Adams presented by the Vector Wellington Orchestra

By , 11/09/2011

Vector Wellington Orchestra’s John Adams 9/11 Commemoration

BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.5 in C Minor

MOZART – Piano Concerto No.25 in C Major

ADAMS – On the Transmigration of Souls

Orpheus Choir, Wellington / Choristers of the Cathedral of St.Paul, Wellington / Wellington Girls’ College Teal Voices

Diedre Irons (piano)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday September 11th, 2011

Review adapted – not a transcript – from a radio review for Radio New Zealand Concert’s”Upbeat”, with Eva Radich)

It was unusual for the Wellington Orchestra to be performing  on a Sunday afternoon.

The 9/11 date gives a clue – and in fact it’s ten years to this very day since New York’s World Trade Centre was attacked and destroyed by two hi-jacked terrorist-controlled aircraft. American composer John Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a piece to be performed on the first anniversary of the attack, in 2002. This performance was the New Zealand premiere of this work, which won for its composer the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003, and for the premiere recording in 2005 various Grammy Awards.

The orchestra usually performs in the Town Hall – but here they were in the Michael Fowler Centre on this occasion.

Acoustically, the Town Hall would have been great for the John Adams work – the music was gradually built up with many different textural strands that would have responded even more powerfully to a full, immediate and  reverberant ambience, the kind of things that performers have to work harder to get in the MFC. But there were advantages gained from performing in the bigger venue, most obviously a bigger audience, and more space in which to place the various choirs that the work requires. Having said this in comparing the two venues, I have to say that I thought the sounds were beautifully managed all the way through – the taped sounds of city activity and the various voices reading the names of people who died in the attack and written tributes to them that were displayed in various places afterwards all came across with plenty of clarity and atmosphere, as did the heartfelt efforts of the different choirs and the power and beauty of the orchestral playing.

It must have been a pretty daunting commission for any composer, to commemorate such an earth-shattering event.

John Adams himself admitted to feeling, at first, a bit overawed by the range and scope of it all – he was quoted as saying “I had great difficulty imagining anything commemorating 9/11 that would not be an embarrassment” –  but then he reckoned that any composer that was worth his salt wouldn’t shrink away from confronting something “profoundly intense” and conveying its essence by whatever means. Adams felt that this event had been so well documented and its images spread so widely, that his job as a composer wasn’t what he called “an exposition of the material” – he had no desire whatever to create any kind of narrative or description. Instead his intention was to create in sound a kind of “memory space” for human reflection, absolutely free from any statement about religion, patriotism or politics. Adams likened to the concept the feeling one gets when one visits an enormous cathedral – he cited the experience of going to Chartres Cathedral in France, saying that “you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot.”

So, how did he do it? – how did the piece begin and develop and make its impact?

Adams decided he would dispense with the usual texts composers used for commemorative works, poetry, liturgy or Scripture. Instead he decided to use words that had been scribbled on posters plastered around Ground Zero by people searching for their missing loved ones. In this way the focus would be on the people who were left behind, on their expressions of hope mixed with gradual acceptance of the reality of loss. He began the piece with prerecorded tape sounds of a city, of people going about their everyday business, pedestrians and traffic noises. Then a voice begins repeating the word “missing” over and over, followed by the introduction of names of the dead. The choirs begin to sing, like angels singing halos of tones, the orchestra strings play soft tremolandos, the percussion begins to softly scintillate, the choirs repeat words with growing intensity, like a great tower or archway gradually lighting up all over. A solo trumpet (very American) reminiscent of Charles Ives and of Gershwin, paying homage to a kind of cultural history, suggests an on-going presence of the spirit, as the choirs continue their chanting (Orpheus Choir) and sustained tones (Choristers’ Choir) accompanied by woodwinds playing Straussian Rosenkavalier-like chords. The music grows and changes textures by osmosis, as different instruments add their timbres and colours, brasses introducing a deep,sombre aspect, the overall sounds gathering girth and variety. The heavy brasses, trombone and tubas, play the most sepulchral notes imaginable and the tape voice repeats the word “missing”, everything growing in intensity and focus until the orchestra, like some leviathan awakening, opens up its heavy batteries with brazen bell sounds, expressing anger, war, disaster and danger, before subsiding into an uneasy calm, with only the children’s voices repeating the messages of grief at first, then gradually joined by the adult choir, the voices like waves of sound, reinforced by the orchestra, canonic flurries from the strings, irruptions from brass and percussion expending tremendous energy. The choir repeats the word “Light” as the taped voices return repeating more names of the dead and the phrase “I see water and buildings” (which were the last words spoken by a flight attendant on her cell-phone) repeated, as the intensities narrow down to a few simple phrases, repeated by the taped voices, such as “my brother’, “my son” and “I love you”. And with these sounds the music gradually fades and dies.

What was the reaction of the audience at the end?

Certainly very respectful, enthusiastic, but at the same time, thoughtful, applause – obviously the “Mr Bravos” of the concert-going world weren’t going to have the chance to exercise their lungs at the end of this piece. I think the audience’s reaction was tempered by the solemnity of it all, and rightly so.

What was the effect of the piece on you? How much power did the piece have to move your emotions?

For me, the most moving section of the work was the last, reflective episode following the final altogether irruptions of sound and energy, impressive though the impact of these was. I found that, in a sense, the composer was requiring of me to “accumulate” emotion over the course of the piece, so that I felt the lump in my throat coming up when I heard the words at the end “My brother”, “my son”, and “I love you”. It’s interesting that, when I was listening to the first five minutes of the work on you-tube on the computer earlier in the day, I felt the emotion well up then, very palpably – but I think that was because the video clip I was watching contained images of the events of the tragedy, the buildings on fire, the rescue workers standing amid the rubble, the onlookers distraught, the people jumping to their deaths, the simply-written poster-messages – somehow the visual imagery worked with the music to activate my emotions far more overtly, which I didn’t experience during the actual performance in any way until those last few minutes.  And I think, as I said, that this accumulated effect was what the composer had planned, that in the end it was the simplicity of utterance of these ordinary people who had been bereaved that was so extraordinarily moving.

This work was placed last on the program – did you think that was a good idea?

Yes, I think one was able to carry out of the concert hall an abiding impression of the commemoration of the day, because of hearing the Adams work last. Of course, to then have played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony wouldn’t have actually “spoiled” the Adams piece – but it would’ve lessened its raw impact on the audience, going into the aftermath of the concert. It was a contemplative, rather than an earth-shattering piece, the realization of which the composer made quite clear was his intention all along.

Perhaps it would have upstaged anything that followed it?

Actually, no – I don’t think so – and again, I think the composer intended it to be that way. Hearing the piece was for me like connecting with some kind of collective human energy for a short while, and feeling a commonality of spirit and of impulse that was comforting in its way. I think it was a boldly-conceived and sensitively-constructed work. I wondered whether some simple visual production techniques, such as appropriately ambient lighting, might have enhanced the work’s overall impact.In one or two places I did imagine that something visual could have been brought into play with no violence done to the composer’s intentions. But there again, it was obvious Adams intended nothing more than a sound-picture, and for those sounds alone to have a cumulative effect upon his audiences.

So, what about the other two items? – were they put in the shade by the Adams work?

For me, not at all – and partly because it was very much a concert of two halves, with each creating its own unique world of feeling. The first half was absolutely splendid in a completely different way, featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (arguably the most famous of all symphonies in the classical literature) and a lesser-known, but still imposing work, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25, with Diedre Irons as the soloist. I was speaking with one of the ushers whom I know, during the interval, and who told me that the first concertgoer who came out of the auditorium a few minutes before had said to her, “World class – absolutely world class!” So, people were obviously impressed by what they were hearing.

Do you think it would be difficult for any conductor and orchestra to tackle something as well-known as Beethoven’s Fifth, something that almost everybody would have heard, and with so many great performances available on recordings? I would think it would be quite daunting a prospect.

I think you’re right about that – and in the face of such circumstances, the only way to tackle such a work is to do exactly what Marc Taddei and the orchestra did – which was to play the music almost as though they’d never heard anybody else’s performance, and instead make it their own. Interestingly, I reckoned it was only the second performance of the work I’d ever heard “live” – of course I’ve heard countless versions on record – but in the concert-hall the music’s still a relatively new experience for me, so I was really looking forward to hearing the work. I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. Under Marc Taddei’s direction the orchestral sounds blazed forth, all departments covering themselves with glory. One of the things that thrilled me was, despite this being the Michael Fowler Centre, and not the Wellington Orchestra’s usual home, the Town Hall, the playing had enough energy and tonal weight to fill the auditorium’s spaces and get across the music’s heroic qualities with plenty of gusto. Particularly successful in this respect was the first movement – great attack, right from the outset, with urgent, rather than monumental tempi, but with the rhythms given plenty of chunky, energetic emphasis. The strings were excellent, but the support from the brass and winds and timpani was also spot-on. Other highlights – one of them in this performance for me was the way Marc Taddei challenged his string players in the scherzo to keep the tempo steady for the rushing string figurations – you remember the lower strings come in first, followed gradually by other, higher voices. The skin and hair was flying as these players bent their backs to the task and kept the momentum of the music going – absolutely thrilling! Another great moment was in the finale when Taddei brought the players in for the repeat, at which point the playing seemed to leap forward all the more eagerly and propulsively.

I did think, in one or two places that the famous “motto” theme needed a touch more rhetoric, a bit more underlining, such as for its very last, grand, first movement statement – after all, it is an intensely dramatic as well as a structural motif. More serious, for me, was the nonappearance of the goblins in the third movement, where Taddei got his strings to play so quietly their pizzicati could hardly be heard against the winds – in fact at one point I thought they’d lost their way and stopped playing, so hushed were their sounds.

And who are these goblins, you might well ask? – Well, in Chapter Five of E.M.Forster’s novel Howard’s End there’s a wonderful description of the Symphony’s third movement, made by Helen, one of the novel’s characters – “….the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures – it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world…..Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push and they began to walk in a major key instead of a minor – and then he blew with his mouth and they were scattered……..The goblins really had been there. They might return–and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things….” Alas, the pizzicati were so quiet, and the tempi so swift, we couldn’t really register the goblins’ footfalls and their uncanny progress, or feel their ominous presence. And when Beethoven briefly returned to the scherzo just before the reprise of the finale’s triumphal theme, Taddei’s tempi were so quick there was no time for goblins and their ominous footfalls whatsoever!

If you hadn’t read “Howard’s End”, what would you have thought of the performance overall?

Oh, absolutely splendid (though with a touch more drama and rhetoric required for the “Fate” theme) – but you’ll appreciate that there are some episodes in one’s favorite music that have got to be done “just so”, otherwise they don’t work as well as they ought to. This is all terribly subjective, I’m sure you must be thinking!

Tell me about the Mozart concerto with Diedre Irons.

This,alas,was the last in the series of Mozart concertos played by Diedre Irons with the orchestra – such a pity that we’re not going to go as far as the last one of all, which I would love to hear her play. Still, this one, No.25 in C major, was suitably grand and ceremonial, as befits its key, and also a counterweight to the C Minor of the Beethoven Symphony that we heard. This is a big-boned concerto, with occasional touches of the exotic – trumpets and drums speaking with what I thought was a Turkish accent during the second subject group.

After these very grand, ritualistic beginnings the soloist’s first entry is, by contrast, somewhat rhapsodic, making us “stop and listen” – Diedre Irons’s playing has such character, such purpose, so that with each phrase we experience delight in the moment and satisfaction with the whole. I liked her piano sound – it seemed to my ears a more characterful, brighter and more sharply-focused sound she was getting, compared with the instrument in the Town Hall, enabling her to do more with the music.

Has it been a good combination, Diedre Irons with Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra?

I thought this concerto in particular interestingly set the music-making styles of two different musicians together in a very interesting and creative partnership – Diedre Irons’s playing detailed and momentous, able to expand the phrases for expressive effect while maintaining the music’s larger momentum, compared with Marc Taddei’s energetic, somewhat “driven” style, given to tauter inclinations, marshalling his rhythms and driving the lyrical lines. Here, those differences worked well upon one another, and helped to bring out the concerto’s variety of mood and colour, to the extent that, if one didn’t know the music well, one wasn’t sure what was going to happen next (Mozart at his most inventive).

I believe that the first movement cadenza was the work of none other than Kenneth Young, which I didn’t know until after the performance, thinking at the time that it was a wonderful window into a composer’s soul, exploring the music’s fundamental materials in different lights and from varied angles (no cadenzas by Mozart for this work have survived). The slow movement was one of Mozart’s “operatic” realizations – it seemed that the winds’ tender descending phrase had taken us to the world of “Le Nozze di Figaro”, to the Count’s garden in the fourth act, with beautiful al fresco horns alerting us to the wonders of the evening air. Despite a few momentary spills – one or two horn blurps, and, elsewhere, some pianistic sunspots (in somewhat ruminative passages) – Irons and the orchestral winds enjoyed some delicious dialogues throughout, particularly lovely in effect towards the movement’s end. The finale’s chirpy, but somewhat plain-sounding theme, gets a good going-over when triplets turn the tune into exciting rhythmic swirling and tumblings, and later there a lovely dovetailing of pianistic triplets against long string lines as part of the rich variation Mozart brings to the music – undoubtedly some of his most inventive and colourful for piano and orchestra. Soloist, conductor and players despatched it all with the utmost élan and enjoyment, for our enormous pleasure.

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