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Homecoming to a Different World

December 11, 2007

A music teacher returned to his old school on Saturday night, three decades after writing his breakout piece there, and the brilliant concert that took place exceeded all expectations of such an occasion. More than a sentimental reunion or dutiful observance of the passage of time, this was a poignant and powerful musical lovefest, some of the teacher's finest and most complex music, performed with startling excellence by a new generation of students.

Conservatory musicians

John Adams, who taught composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 to 1983, has gone on to write symphonic music and opera acclaimed around the world. Once dismissed by some as "just one of the minimalists," Adams is accepted today as one of the most important living composers. Not only has the world come to really hear, appreciate, and applaud his music, but — as tonight proved — the new generation of students has developed the ability to play his most demanding works as first-class professionals.

Adams himself gave an indication of what was to happen in the Conservatory Concert Hall when, in a brief address, he said that although the 1978 Shaker Loops was written back then for students, he had no idea, when writing Harmonielehre for the San Francisco Symphony in 1985, that a student orchestra could perform this huge, difficult piece. Listening to rehearsals, and observing today's level of student performances during his weeklong residency at the Conservatory, Adams says, was a "moving experience."
Student Orchestra, Professional Performances
The concert that followed exceeded even that high praise. With a few minor exceptions, such as some unintended "shakiness" at the intricate end of Shaker Loops, the students gave professional and gripping performances of both pieces. Shaker Loops was conducted by Adams, Harmonielehre by Andrew Mogrelia.

Adams, always unself-consciously self-deprecating, introduced Shaker Loops as a "triumph of inspiration over lack of technique." The 24-minute work for seven string instruments marked one of the first successful departures from the soulless days of minimalism. It was written at a time, Adams says, "when I didn't know anything about strings." He had a "couple of ideas,” he says, "and that can get you a long way in minimalism." At first, he just tried some "modules, a la Terry Riley," but it all sounded "lumpy," and then he "wrote out the whole piece," and it started to take shape. Describing a passage as "glasslike," Adams fell a beat behind the earliest laughter in the audience before motioning with his hand that he meant "that kind of glass."

I don't know when it happened (because my memories of him a few years back indicate otherwise), but Adams has also become a sensitive, effective conductor. He and the seven — violinists Daniel Jang, Tao Zhang, Leonie Bot; violist Alexa Beattie; cellists Jeremiah Campbell and Erin Wang; bassist Matthew Washburn — gave the most fluid and involving performance among the dozen I have heard.
The Overwhelming Storm of Harmonielehre
Shaker Loops is a transparent miniature; Harmonielehre is a dense, overwhelming orchestral storm. I don't know how the Conservatory Orchestra channeled the Berlin Philharmonic in performing this 40-minute aural space journey, but it surely did. He wrote it eight years after Shaker Loops and no longer handicapped by lack of technique, Adams says, with an understatement par excellence. "This was something I could do only once, taking from Debussy, Wagner, Sibelius — the music we all love — and putting it into the black box of minimalism."

Neither that nor the elaborate explanations Adams has given for the origin of the work does it justice. When heard in such a near-flawless, broad (rather than too-loud) performance, with Zachary Goodman's trumpet solo, and strings moving as one (in the manner of another youth orchestra, the Simón Bolívar), minimalism or Adams' preoccupation with the Jungian theory of the Amfortas Wound (in the brooding, fearsome second movement) are of no importance. Harmonielehre is simply great symphonic music, enjoyable and repeatable (this was my seventh or eighth hearing).

With Schoenberg's 1911 Harmony Textbook as his point of departure, Adams' purpose with Harmonielehre was to act on his "profound dislike for 12-tone music," which Schoenberg developed after compiling his huge textbook on tonal harmony. Here, theory, intent, and the power of Harmonielehre do coincide: Adams did, in fact, offer an alternative, a better way.
Countermanding the Agony of Modern Music
Adams has denounced Schoenberg's aesthetic as "an overripening of 19th-century individualism, one in which the composer was a god of sorts, to which the listener would come as if to a sacramental altar ... and so the 'agony of modern music' had been born." The result was "aural ugliness" and "rapidly shrinking classical music audiences" in the 20th century.

Adams uses early Schoenberg against the later one. Of all the musical quotations in Harmonielehre the most prominent is the gentle, tinkling, opening passage of the 1900 Gurrelieder, used by Adams at the beginning of the third movement, "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie" (a title accurately described by the composer as "Zappa-esque").

But the glory of Harmonielehre is the untitled, monumental first movement, which "marries the developmental techniques of minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin-de-siècle late Romanticism." Beyond intent and analysis, there is the music, speaking for itself, carrying the listener away. In the well-disciplined, academic environment Saturday night, there was no applause at the big-bang fortissimo finale of the first movement, except for a single, loud, rock-concert yell: "WHOA!"

I don't recommend sitting directly behind the composer at a concert where his work is performed — you can't help being aware of his response to the music instead of concentrating on your own — but at the "WHOA!" moment, I was glad to be able to watch Adams' reaction to this raw emotion. The composer grinned, ear to ear.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].