Thomas Adès, the British composer, conducted a program of the New York Philharmonic. Yes, the composer conducted. The program featured a piece of his own, Totentanz, a kind of cantata for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra. There are many Totentänze, or dances of death, in music (Liszt’s, notably). Adès is a respecter and perpetuator of musical traditions. His Totentanz is a big piece, with those two singers, a very large orchestra, and a length of forty minutes. It thinks big and aims big. This is fairly unusual in our somewhat miniaturist age. Of course, maybe composers write miniatures because they are given precious little time on our programs (which can be a blessing).
The Adès Totentanz is based on a fifteenth-century frieze in Lübeck, Germany. The frieze is no more: it was destroyed by the Royal Air Force in World War II. The frieze depicted the predations of Death, predations that were entirely nondiscriminatory. Death danced among Pope and Emperor, craftsman and peasant, all the way down to a baby. The idea is, You’ll get yours, no matter who you are. Adès gets his text from words that accompanied the frieze. He keeps those words in German (as his title is in German). His baritone sings the part of Death. (Bad guys are almost always in low voice.) The mezzo-soprano sings the parts of all the human characters, the victims. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Witold Lutos?awski, the Polish composer, and his wife, Danuta.
Naturally, the music is deathly, spooky, macabre. It can also be martial. I heard some Shostakovich hammering. Death is arrogant, stentorian, mocking, wooing. The victims are defiant and protesting. Or they are scared, submissive, and so on. I thought I heard some creepily crawling worms as in Haydn’s Creation. I was also reminded of Berlioz’s horse ride into hell, from his Damnation of Faust. Adès’s piece can be loud, very loud, disturbingly loud. At times, my ears hurt (and I don’t mean this as a criticism). Someone once published a list of “sweatiest movies.” If there were a list of loudest pieces, I believe this Totentanz would make it.
Adès includes some wacky circus music, some jazz, some burlesque. There is “fascinatin’ rhythm,” to borrow a Gershwin phrase. There is also a terrible sense of inexorability. Death will get his man—or woman or child—no matter what. During the performance, more than a few patrons left. Was it because they disliked the music or because they disliked the theme? I would guess the latter. Once, in Carnegie Hall, patrons streamed out of a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 (which is soaked in death). My colleague Sedgwick Clark told me, “That piece scares the hell out of old people.”
Near the end of the Adès Totentanz, there is a lovely duet in a major key, between Death and one of his victims (a maiden? a child?). To me, this is the most sinister part of the whole piece. Death is cozying up as a friend or comforter.
The piece at large is rather operatic and not dull. This piece about death is alive, and that is an important quality in a composition. Adès has composed with diabolical excellence. Mark Stone, a British baritone, delivered his part of Death with chilling concentration and characterization. Christianne Stotijn, a Dutch mezzo, sang the parts of the people with dignity and pathos. Both of them performed as though they were involved in something important. The composer himself was an assured and unquestionably authoritative conductor.
He can conduct other people’s music, too. Totentanz occupied the second half of the program, while the first consisted of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and Berlioz’s Franc-juges overture. In the Beethoven, Adès was a model of proportion. At the same time, he wasn’t bland. The music was beautifully sculpted and paced. The Finale quivered with its inherent merriment. The Franc-juges overture, which can be a nothing, was dramatic, precise, and commanding.
Adès is a real conductor, a real composer—and a real pianist. Some years ago, I covered a recital of his. I went to hear a composer play the piano. Instead, there was a genuine pianist onstage. In the early 2000s, Adès recorded his piano quintet. Paired with his work was Schubert’s “Trout,” with Adès again serving as pianist. Honestly, that recording of the “Trout”—which has been recorded by everyone and his brother—is one of the finest I know.
I did not go to that recent Philharmonic concert with the highest expectations or pleasure. For one thing, I wondered why I had to sit through the composer’s conducting of a Beethoven symphony and a Berlioz overture before hearing the new piece I was going to review. But the concert turned out to be more than a concert—more like a happening, an event.
Into Carnegie Hall came the St. Louis Symphony, led by its music director, David Robertson. Their program began with Debussy’s Nocturnes, which I looked forward to hearing. That is because Robertson conducted the St. Louis orchestra in one of the best accounts of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, by the same composer, that I have ever heard. This was in the same hall, Carnegie, about ten years ago. And Faun, of course, has been conducted and played by everybody. So, how was, or were, the Nocturnes? Careful and thoughtful, as can be expected from Robertson. And, I’m afraid, insuperably dull.
Following the Debussy was a 2010 piece by Meredith Monk, an American composer. The article about her in our program booklet began, “Meredith Monk is an artist whose work eludes conventional categories and genres.” Everyone wants to elude conventional categories and genres. Probably no one has ever said, “You know? My work fits neatly into conventional categories and genres.” We all want to be cool and independent. Cool and independent though she may be, Monk has won virtually every award the Establishment has to offer. She “was recently named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Republic of France” (said our program booklet). She was Musical America’s Composer of the Year. She has been declared one of National Public Radio’s “50 Great Voices.” She won a MacArthur “genius” award. She has garnered two Guggenheim Fellowships, an ASCAP Concert Music Award, and honorary doctorates from Juilliard and other prestigious institutions. She is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. And she is Carnegie Hall’s composer-in-residence.
Has any composer been more honored in his or her own lifetime? Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms?
Monk’s 2010 piece is called WEAVE, and it is for two voices, chamber orchestra, and chorus. Some titles are entirely in small letters; some are in all caps. That is part of coolness and independence, I think. The piece is called WEAVE because a musical idea or ideas weave in and out continually. Monk says that her piece “is about change, energy, and a sense of vastness.” I will tell you what I heard, in brief, acknowledging the inadequacy of my description.
One singer, a baritone, sang a word that sounded like “Nagandhi” into a microphone. He was soon joined by a mezzo-soprano. Quickly, we were entranced in minimalism (or not entranced, depending on the listener). This was the long-familiar Glassism with certain vocal twists. WEAVE has something like tribal chanting. There is minimalism, or repetition, or Glassism, punctuated by exclamations. I tried to hear musical merit in the piece, or to admire craftsmanship, whether I thought musical inspiration was present or not. I’m afraid I found the work dull—duller than Robertson’s Nocturnes.
I think of composers I know—worthy composers—who count themselves lucky to have a piece performed in a church basement, forgetting Carnegie Hall. Who would be glad to be taken on by a junior college, forgetting Guggenheims, genius grants, and the rest. I am mystified by how the music world works. By the making of stars and the ignoring of others. I’m not picking on Meredith Monk, believe me. I begrudge her and other honorees nothing. I have praised Monk’s music in the past. I’m picking on our age, as I often do. The music world is subject to groupthink, same as other fields. Everyone thinks of himself as iconoclastic and daring, but few are.
A few seasons ago, I sat in Carnegie Hall as something by John Cage, Song Books, was being performed onstage. This is one of those “multimedia” works. People sat attentively and happily, as far as I could tell. I wanted to say, “Are you really enjoying this? Being enriched by it? Don’t you think Cage is playing a trick on you? That this is just a con? That he is laughing at you from beyond the grave? Did he ever imagine that he could get people to sit in a major concert hall, dressed up, and listen to this as if it were real music or art?” Afterward, they applauded as though they had heard the Missa solemnis. (Meredith Monk was a participant in this performance, by the way.) Over and over, I see an emperor who is stark naked while others see an emperor garbed in finery. Someone—me?—needs his eyes checked.
I sometimes wonder whether audiences and critics really and truly like something or merely think they’re supposed to. Are they drinking castor oil and calling it a chocolate milkshake? I think people are terrified to dislike the avant-garde or trendy—terrified to be thought uncool or square.
Googling around, I found a review of one of the first performances of WEAVE. “Meredith Monk weaves a spell,” read the headline. The critic said WEAVE was “wondrous,” and he dubbed Monk “the super-seamstress of performance.” He also said, “It has taken time for some of us in the music world to fully understand or acknowledge her importance as a composer.” Perhaps I need more time. The audience in Carnegie Hall didn’t: they applauded WEAVE robustly, even rapturously. People rose to their feet (and not to leave). Not infrequently in a concert hall, I’ll think, “Either the joke’s on them or the joke’s on me.” I am prepared to think that it’s on me. There used to be a slogan for a grocery store: “A million Kroger shoppers can’t be wrong.” That’s true. Right?
As the Totentanz of Thomas Adès occupied the second half of a New York Philharmonic program, so did a new work by John Adams. In fact, he was explicit about his desire for this placement. “The concerto is usually the 20-minute piece in the middle of the program,” Adams said, “and you have to be very, very prestigious—like the ‘Emperor’ Concerto or a Brahms piano concerto or the Beethoven Violin Concerto—to take over the larger spot on the program. But that’s what I wanted to write.” He wrote Scheherazade.2, meant to be a kind of successor, apparently, to the symphonic poem written by Rimsky-Korsakov in the 1880s. The Adams piece is a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra,” in the composer’s own description. Like the Adès piece, it is forty minutes long. And it has a program, or a storytelling intent.
The violin plays the role of Scheherazade. The first movement introduces her, and tells of her pursuit by “the true believers.” The second movement is called “A Long Desire (Love Scene).” It is meant to depict Scheherazade with her lover. In his commentary about the piece, Adams is keen for us to know that the heroine’s lover could be either a man or a woman. “Who knows?” The third movement portrays a trial, at which Scheherazade is judged and condemned by “men with beards.” In the finale, we have Scheherazade’s “escape, flight, sanctuary.”
Adams dedicates the work to the violinist Leila Josefowicz, who was the soloist with the Philharmonic. In a program note, he writes, “I find Leila a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess.”
Before the performance, Adams came out onstage with the evening’s conductor, Alan Gilbert, to discuss the work. He told us how it came about. First, he saw an exhibition in Paris about Scheherazade, the storyteller in Arabian Nights. Then he read Arabian Nights itself. He was appalled by “the casual brutality toward women,” he said. At the same time, he was reading about brutality toward women around the world: in Egypt, Afghanistan, India, and elsewhere. But Americans were not to think themselves exempt from this brutality, he said. No, you can “find it on Rush Limbaugh.”
When he said this—a shocking, vicious lie—much of the audience applauded loud and long. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell presents us with the “Two Minutes Hate.” The hate in Avery Fisher Hall did not last that long, but it lasted long enough. Groupthink can be ugly (not to mention dangerous) as well as boring.
For his part, Alan Gilbert said that Scheherazade.2 was “magnificent” and that Leila Josefowicz would be “staggering” in it. This is what is known, in another field, as “prejudicing the jury.” Finally, after all the explaining, defaming, and prejudicing, the music started.
Adams’s first movement is anxious, tense, restless. It is rhapsodic, cinematic. There are touches of exoticism or Orientalism (with apologies to Edward Said). The orchestra must be virtuosic, and so must the soloist. Both the Philharmonic and Josefowicz were well prepared. When not playing, the violinist assumed a stance and looked fierce and determined. She seemed to be acting a role, as well as playing one on her violin. The second movement, the love scene, has some nice aching lines. After a while, however, I found it tedious. The third movement is an example of excellent dramatic writing. The trial unfolds vividly. The orchestra is brutish; the violin responds with sweet lines. The last movement is a traditional last movement, in a sense: it’s fast. It is also very busy, in the Adams style. One man’s busyness is another man’s intricacy and energy, and vice versa. Eventually, the music slows down, as Scheherazade finds sanctuary, and it ends with something like the lark ascending.
Two of Adams’s best works are for violin and orchestra: his concerto and The Dharma at Big Sur. (The latter is for electric violin.) I believe they are my favorite Adams works. Scheherazade.2 is certainly skillful, and well intended, and I would like to hear it again. I think I have had enough of prefatory remarks, though. We used to say that music spoke for itself, before the Flood.
It’s déjà vu all over again. In our last issue, I wrote of a new work by Jake Heggie for voice, cello, and piano. That was a three-song cycle called The Work at Hand. Jamie Barton, an American mezzo, included it on a program at Zankel Hall. Since then, Heidi Stober, an American soprano, has sung a program in Weill Recital Hall. And she included another work for voice, cello, and piano by Heggie: From the Book of Nightmares. This is a four-song cycle, setting texts by Galway Kinnell, who died last year at eighty-seven. He was, among other things, the poet laureate of Vermont.
The first song is “You Scream,” about a child’s nightmare. It is nightmarish indeed—also anxious and squirmy. Over the years, I’ve proposed that the current age in music be called the “Age of Anxiety.” It could also be known as the “Age of Squirminess.” The second song in Heggie’s cycle is “In a Restaurant.” In this text, according to the recital’s program notes, “Kinnell counterposes a child’s innocent fascination with excrement against the larger obscenity of war.” At any rate, the song opens, in the piano, rather like a song by Samuel Barber: “The Praises of God,” from Hermit Songs. Heggie’s song is whimsical, and it is charmingly awkward in its rhythm.
The third song, “My Father’s Eyes,” is dreamy, smooth, and pop-like. It is also a bit New Agey, in that familiar Bay Area style. (Heggie is one of those composers.) Like other such songs, it is lovely. In the fourth song, “Back You Go,” we are back to the Age of Anxiety. But then we have relief from it as the song grows warm and affirmative, in another familiar American style—a style typified in Lee Hoiby and Ned Rorem.
Heidi Stober and her partners—David Heiss, cello, and Craig Terry, piano—performed From the Book of Nightmares with care and sincerity. Whether I will have a third Heggie work for voice, cello, and piano to report to you next time, I don’t yet know.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 9, on page 53
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