Scene4 Magazine-inSight

July 2010

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

John Adams: Perspectives

For those of you who love contemporary opera, the Steiny Road Poet challenges you to imagine the music of your favorite opera coming out of the pit onto the stage alone without voices and movement of the singers. On May 20, 2010, the Poet had the pleasure of being steeped in a selection of the music of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes and John Adams' Doctor Atomic. John Adams conducted the concert as well as selected the music to be played.

The concert was part of John Adams: Perspectives, a two-week series devoted to the works of the Pulitzer Prize–winning American composer, sponsored by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Concerts series. The two-week series included a film on the life of John Adams, John Adams reading at the Library of Congress from his autobiography Hallelujah Junction, a performance by virtuoso violinist Jennifer Koh of John Adams's Road Movies, and music-themed talks by John Adams himself.


Opening the May 20 Adams concert was the four-part Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes. According to British conductor Norman Del Mar in his book Conducting Favorite Concert Pieces, the popularity of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes is linked to the "brilliant device of taking a set of orchestral excerpts from the opera, and slightly reconstructing them so they can be readily incorporated into the concert repertoire." [p.42] Britten extracted five interludes: the four-part 16-minute Sea Interludes and the seven-minute Passacaglia. Del Mar also said that the Passacaglia while it is often played after the Sea Interludes should be played as the third interlude (in other words in the middle of the Sea Interludes) since the fourth sea interlude "Storm" is unmistakably meant to conclude the set of interludes. Adams did not choose to include the Passacaglia, which has a foreboding mood and does not conjure an image of the sea. The Steiny Road Poet imagines that Adams saw the four-part Sea Interludes as a good prelude to his second program selection, his own The Dharma at Big Sur and a good counterpoint choice for his Doctor Atomic Symphony, which is set in the desert.

Closing the concert was the Doctor Atomic Symphony, which, unlike Britten's self-contained Sea Interludes, is a further orchestral development of the opera music. As an extra bonus, or just in case anyone was incubating the idea that Adams wasn't proud of his opera, a video of Gerald Finley in the role of the lead atomic bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer rendered the seminal aria "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." One surprising omission from the Doctor Atomic Symphony was the electronic soundscape that opens the opera. Perhaps Adams hears those sound bytes of industrial groans and screeches, the roar of airplanes, military voices, and a snippet of Jo Stafford singing 'The Things We Did Last Summer' as a composite character of the twentieth century and wanted a more pristine symphonic approach.

While Dharma at Big Sur, the second work played, is not derived from an opera, Adams found inspiration for it in the writings of Jack Kerouac. Specifically, Adams refers to Kerouac's novels The Dharma Bums and Big Sur as the composer's influences as well as an encounter with Tracy Silverman playing electric violin at an Oakland jazz club and the Asian inflected music of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. So Adams, a native of New England like Kerouac, found all these voices singing to him and he translated these influences in an improvisational way through the form of Indian raga as well as the improv styles of Jimi Hendrix, Stefan Grapelli and Appalachian bluegrass.

So what is the Dharma at Big Sur? Besides being the manifestation of Adam's ecstasy as an East Coaster encountering the dramatic cliffs at the Pacific Ocean, josefowicz10-crthis composition is a concerto for electric violin. While Adam's wrote the work for Tracy Silverman, Leila Josefowicz fell in love with the piece and went to great trouble to have an electric violin made for her so she too could play this piece that has a range from the top notes of violin into the cello range. Hearing her play at the May 20, 2010 concert was a rare treat.

What is also interesting about these three pieces— the four-part Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes, Dharma at Big Sur, and Doctor Atomic Symphony—is that all of these pieces come from subject sources involving the concept of justice and the order of natural things. The story of Peter Grimes is about a seaman accused of abusing his apprentices and how the sea metes its own justice. Doctor Atomic's story examines the ethics of scientists and military personnel involved in the testing and use of the atomic bomb, certainly a horrific blow against nature and humanity. The word dharma from a Hindu perspective means one's righteous duty and is used in the practice of Buddhism to describe its teachings and practices. Kerouac's semi-fictional novel The Dharma Bums is based on Kerouac's introduction to Buddhism by the real-life poet Gary Snyder. In any case, these three choices show us the concerns of the composer John Adams.

The selection of the fourth piece Igor Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice (which preceded the Doctor Atomic Symphony) was guided by the Kennedy Center Focus on Russia, a program supported by the HRH Foundation. While Adams asserts that Adams admires characteristics of Stravinsky's compositions, particularly his unconventional harmonic alignments, one could see the selection of this piece as a convenient choice that met a funding requirement and did not take too much concert time but certainly wasn't particularly in keeping with the themes of the other three pieces.

While much has been written about John Adams lack of eloquent conducting skills (and granted Adams looked particularly awkward conducting the Sea Interludes), nothing seemed to get in the way of an exuberant performance by the National Symphony Orchestra and the soloist Leila Josefowicz. Perhaps most critics would prefer to see John Adams stay home and write more operas, symphonies, and concertos, but for the Steiny Road Poet having the energy of Adams in front of the outstanding performers of NSO was rather operatic and in keeping with the majority of the work presented.


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©2010 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

July 2010

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