Evelyn Glennie conjures the spirits

Evelyn Glennie conjures the spirits

New Creations 2011 opened last night at Roy Thomson Hall with Toronto Symphony Orchestra (c Peter Oundjian) performing a brief and amusing piece by John Adams, A Short Ride on in a Fast Machine. The twisted take on the fanfares was a good appetizer before the two pièces de résistance that made up the evening: The Shaman that Vincent Ho composed for the percussion shaman superstar Evelyn Glennie and the full performance of John Adams’s (no point in hesitating) masterpiece Harmonielehre.

In recording, Harmonielehre is compelling aplenty, but hearing it live and played by the TSO is — let’s reclaim this word from the teenage misuse — in the realm of awesome. It’s a three-movement symphony, in which Adams makes the propulsion, repetition and discordant tempi of minimalism converse with the vocabulary of the later Romantic symphonies and orchestral pieces. Part one begins recognizably minimalist and gung-ho, and as it progresses the seeds of its dissolution develop from the margins and gradually take over, when you find yourself in what you can swear is Mahler or Sibelius. This completely different atmosphere and different textures then free themselves and as they overgrow they start changing shape into more strident, machine-like, atypically tonal, increasingly irregular until you’re back in the familiar territory that Adams started with. But of course, by then, neither territory is safe and at one with itself. Our habit in identifying what’s musically what is by then well disturbed.

This movement is followed by the more lento  The Anfortas Wound (composed at the time when John Adams thought a lot about the place of grace and the unconscious in music making) and the final movement, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie which begins as a berceuse and ends in full blast noise explosion.

To observe such a complex structure come live before one’s eyes, player by player and instrument by instrument, is extraordinary experience. (Get the higher up seats for the rest of the festival!) The TSO under its conductor performed with ferocity and mean precision. Bravi tutti, and no wonder John Adams grinned and looked happy for the entire oh, how many? four-five curtain calls?

In his piece created specifically for Evelyn Glennie, Vincent Ho wrote the orchestra first, then added the percussions as counterpoint (he explained this during the intermission chat). They collaborated throughout and the finished piece leaves considerable ad hoc composing room to the percussionist.  Glennie moved quickly between the full gamut of percussion instruments and even played with the delayed waves of her own amplified voice (Can somebody provide more information about what that was? I am guessing it was artistic manipulation of the miked sound. And tell more about those myriad bells, while you’re at it.) It was she who carried the orchestra and surfed its wave. In this case, the TSO was but a dance partner.  The evening of Shamanism it was: the RTH was already packed with humans when all the spirits happily showed up for duty.

Here’s the amazing Evelyn Glennie — who, did I forget to mention, happens to be deaf — talking about how we hear music with our bodies not with our ears, and why the most important thing in music is what’s not legible in the score.

This production will be fully televised

This production will be fully televised

Nixon in China at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. Seen on February 5, 2011. Full Cast & Creative here.

We are greeted by the terracotta warriors first, about a meter high and lined in an orderly fashion like the figures in chess. The stage stays awash in the light wallpaper of red while one by one the tai chi practitioners all wearing the same grey Maoist uniform come out and begin moving in relative unison. The only person standing out is the elderly Chinese who will later ramble in and out of various scenes and observe the proceedings in wonderment. The music starts and the crowd, now obviously a chorus, sings The People Are The Heroes Now (‘The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention’). Alice Goodman’s Synopsis specifies that the scene is showing the “contingents of army, navy and air force”. Instead of President Nixon’s plane strolling onto the runway – thank Thalia, no fake Air Force One is rolled onto the stage – the television sets are floated down, each showing a plane descending. The moment the TV planes touch the ground and doors open, Nixon (Robert Orth) and Pat (Maria Kanyova) appear at the top of the high stairs on the left. Welcome to the new and not naturalist production of Nixon in China, Mr. President.

It’s not exactly a new, unseen and unreviewed production: more new-ish (2004) and already seen in other co-prod cities (here’s the list: Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera and Portland Opera), but the director James Robinson’s production won’t age any time soon. The mainstay of the minimalist set are the TV screens of several sizes and arrangements, a fantastically clever choice by Robinson and the set designer Allen Moyer given the importance the television had for the event itself. Later in the opera when Nixon thinks about the solid stock, middle-American family (what would now be called his demographics) they appear on stage, dinner plates on their laps, in the glow of television light. In the first scene of Act II, while Pat is on the mandatory tour of various communes, factories and points of local pride, the documentary images in the levitating TV sets match exactly what is going on stage, so the stage props have some room for abstraction and play. (Pigs, for example, come onto the stage carried by the peasants as three-dimensional placards.) In the last scene of the opera, as each of the four principals plus Henry Kissinger undress and get ready for bed, it is on top of the large TV sets, permanently on, that they all sit and lie.

What of the music, then? I may not be the most representative audience member in that I can happily take endless hours of anything resembling minimalism, but most people don’t have similar idiosyncrasies of taste. By now our ears have been well-trained for minimalism thanks to the many minimalist composers who work in film – Michael Nyman (The Piano etc.) Yann Thiersen (Amélie), also Philip Glass (The Hours, Notes on a Scandal and The Fog of War among many others), and anybody who’s exposed to minimalism is usually swept away by its exuberance. But what if the piece is three hours long? Three hours of oceanic buildup and exuberance can annihilate all exuberance out of one. Also, part of the listening of minimalism is that our expectations of ending and resolution get rolfed. “How can this ever end without a painful deflation and tumble to the ground? Nah, we’re going to be on this wave forever.” In Nixon in China there are many changes of colour and passages connecting the different bouts –what in a more traditional operatic language could be called the set pieces – and how well they’re executed depends on the conductor. At the opening night, Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado marshaled his pit army valiantly, and the orchestra maintained consistent sound and high energy.

The cast had no weak links. Baritone Robert Orth sang his (by now, signature) role with aplomb and twinkle in the eye, steering clear from any hint of caricature. The role of Pat Nixon may even be trickier than Dick’s because it requires restraint and deglamourizing of the singer, both dramatic and vocal, and Maria Kanyova’s Pat, fluttering and never quite sure if she’s allowed to have an opinion yet always obliged to speak, was tone perfect. The opera shows the Nixons as a genuinely close and caring couple – Mao and Mrs Mao get a similar break — which is in contrast to the Oliver Stone & Anthony Hopkins possibly hatchet-y portrait of Nixon as a domestic abuser. The character of Kissinger is masterfully delegated to the sidelines, in contradiction to the myth which Kissinger himself and many Nixon-era scholars and pundits perpetuated, that Kissinger ran the place while Nixon was President. He is also given a touch of caricature, the (probably again self-produced) myth of his womanizing is taken for a walk and mocked, and his sinister side aired in the funniest way possible during the Red Detachment of Women ballet. Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons sung Kissinger in the original Sellars production and here relives the hilarious standard. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan (Chu-En Lai) was rock-solid throughout: whatever the scene, you could count on his secure voice and discreet melancholy to anchor it. The only tenor in the cast is the old Mao, sung by Adrian Thomson, who managed to give his often mystifying lines and behaviour what they needed the most: believability. He even earns some sympathy in the final scene with Mrs. Mao, this time the frisky young coloratura thing, maybe a nod to her days as a starlet which Mao reminisces on, sung by Marisol Montalvo.

The scene in which he is introduced, however, was difficult to follow. The words he is saying and the non-exchange that Nixon and he (enforced by the echoing entourage) have it’s probably meant to show the dissonance and talking at cross-purpose, but there was something off that night either in the execution or the libretto itself that almost forced me to tune out. For some reason, possibly of unbalanced sound engineering in this amplified opera, Robert Orth’s singing started at too low a volume and kept being overwhelmed by the orchestra decibels (I was in the mid-parterre). When the first Mao-Nixon scene came on, everything appeared to go out of joint: the timing of the exchange, the sound levels among the singers, the orchestral veil became almost jarring. No idea where to put the blame, but let’s try with Alice Goodman.

Namely, I am not sure I want my librettos written by poets. Alice Goodman’s research for the libretto was very thorough, and her poetic gift is undeniable (according to John Adams’s bio, she is now an Anglican priest in England). But words of poetry require slow consummation and full attention, which the opera libretto must divide with and sometimes surrender to other elements: the music and the action on stage. Perhaps this scene would have been more manageable if the words didn’t require our monopoly of attention? There was simply no time to contemplate the polysemic layers of Mao’s words while that scene was taking place.

But that and the odd moment of illogical sound engineering are my only reservations. Overall, this is one rocking production with the most rocking score.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China, 2011. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Seán Curran, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Mohr and video designer Wendall K. Harrington. Photo: Michael Cooper

Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon in the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China, 2011. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Seán Curran, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Mohr and video designer Wendall K. Harrington. Photo: Michael Cooper

Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon in the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China, 2011. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Seán Curran, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Mohr and video designer Wendall K. Harrington. Photo: Michael Cooper

Should you read this autobiography: Hallelujah Junction by John Adams

Should you read this autobiography: Hallelujah Junction by John Adams

Name: John Adams. Occupation: The Mensch

In 1981, the newly created Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles commissioned a multi-media performance for its opening at a temporary site, the warehouse that used to house the car repair shop for the LA Police Department. John Adams was to write the music, Lucinda Childs was going to do the choreography, and in charge of the set was “a local architect [Adams] never heard of”, Frank Gehry. The title of the piece, Available Light, was a suggestion from Lucinda Childs’ “close friend and companion”, one Susan Sontag.

Adams’ autobiography is full of episodes of this kind, the low key, devoid of pomp and self-importance descriptions of how a project or a collaboration came to be, peppered with names that have since become legendary. In Leningrad for a conference on the musical avant-garde, we’ll see Adams at a remote table of an empty hotel dining room deep in conversation with John Cage. He has known Lorraine Hunt since she was a violist of some renown in Northern California and he’ll give us a glimpse of LH arriving, recently awoken and charmingly disheveled, to an early morning rehearsal. As still a young composer, he recollects approaching Allen Ginsberg at a café in San Francisco and asking him for William Burroughs’ address so he can send him a copy of his piece Heavy Metal. (“Send it to him”, was Ginsberg’s reply. “He’s always interested.”) The descriptions of Peter Sellars and the many productive and hilarious moments of their long collaboration alone are worth the price of admission. No matter how wide Adams’ own reading range is, he always gives the impression that Sellars’ is much wider and that he keeps surprising him with new discoveries. (A typical start of the work on a libretto would be Sellars pulling from his backpack an obscure collection of poetry in its original language and saying to Adams, “You have, of course, heard of this…”)

Still. However many Indexical pleasures this book will hold for us indexical addicts*, they’re not the most important thing about Hallelujah Junction. It’s the fact that the book gives us the privilege of a peek into the mind of a composer with a great mind. It’s also a frank account of a life as an artist (hint: there’s a lot of trial and error). Adams is equally at ease discussing good times and bad, acclaim and criticism, and, surprisingly for an autobiography, a form often used to settle old scores and reiterate one’s side in every story, Junction is remarkably magnanimous.

Therefore, the avant-garde tradition into which the young Harvard composition graduate emerged in the sixties gets an excellent hearing across the chapters and only by the end of the book we realize that it is something that Adams in his composing practices actually repudiated or more precisely overcame (augehoben). Like many of his contemporaries, he was interested in Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt, while simultaneously being put off by their exclusivity (Boulez’s writing was a “dense thicket of procedural dicta”; Babbitt’s article “Who cares if you listen?” will be what he’s more widely known for than his music). John Cage was the composer with a much greater role for Adams, and his work and writing spoke to Adams “in terms both radical and illuminating”. He was also a rare artist who gave proper acknowledgment to chance and incorporated the aleatory in his composing. But ever so slightly, as termites working through an edifice, Adams brings us to understand why he ended up thinking of the avant-garde of that time as a desert and a dead-end. (Boredom these works inevitably caused was an important factor. Another one: it was music capable of surviving only through the composer’s charisma, but not in transmission. Pseudo-scientific models, lack of interest in whether anybody was listening were among others.) Discovering minimalism for Adams meant a renaissance.

Although he’s still sometimes classified as a minimalist, to follow the many trajectories that John Adams took from minimalism one is advised to read this treasure of a book. He argues, for example, that the late Romantic language developed by Schumann and Wagner did not die with the onset of Modernism, but rather continued to live in places like American jazz, show music and pop song. “The harmonic essence of the early popular American composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Ellington was not all that different from the chromaticism of the late Romantic composers.” (A Harmony Lesson, p 105) That is another tradition that Adams relates to. Other influential events and procedures: the electronic music; the alternative tuning (this is some fascinating stuff); non-Western musical traditions and instruments; the sound equivalent of ‘found objects’; computer programs that facilitate the creation of the alternative tempi for the instruments in the same piece and the spacial effects in composing (the far and near sounds, the ambiance sounds); the rhythms of poetry in different languages; and of course, what is known as the Western musical canon. And these are just a few things that I can immediately remember.

Adams shows us the detailed genealogy of each of his piece. As if it’s not enough that the music is so inventive and complex, the librettos to his operatic works zoom in to some of the toughest issues his country has faced or self-created. Urban class warfare, racial inequalities, xenophobic response to immigration, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, complicity of scientists with nefariousness of political power, environmental degradation, yes, all that is in, but Adams has probably received the greatest flak for his Death of Klinghoffer and the criticism of his country’s blind support for Israel. Even when he gives account of the many controversies and media storms that have followed his choice of topics, in his customary gentlemanly Adamsian way he lets his opponents speak. And a lot. And you realize that that’s the best way of embarrassing their argument. There’s a segment in the chapter on the Death of Kinghoffer which deals with the reception of this opera after September 11, when many used the opportunity to grandstand by qualifying Klinghoffer as ‘dangerous’. Richard Taruskin, for example. If you ever suspected that RT was a dick, but were hesitant to conclude it once and for all, that question will be put to rest after reading his opportunistic attack on Klinghoffer.

In his book Adams will often express admiration for performers and instrumentalists. He has no doubt that they are the integral part of what a work is and that they make or break a composition. Many times he would mention a name and follow it with “s/he taught me what it is that I composed; showed me there was more in the work than I even suspected.”

Own this book.

* Indexical pleasure: the pleasure of checking the bio’s index first, then reading the text so we can see what context the names of interest emerge in.

Nixon in China opens at the COC on Saturday, February 5. It had its Met debut this week.

John Adams blogs here.