Friday, December 17, 2010

A Bit of Early John Adams History

In covering the first stage of this season’s Project San Francisco concerts at Davies Symphony Hall, organized by the San Francisco Symphony, for which John Adams was composer-in-residence, I gave considerable attention to the Inside Music Talk that former SF Classical Music Examiner Scott Foglesong gave for the Symphony performances of Adams’ “Harmonielehre.”  Foglesong seems to share my conviction that experiences are much more memorable when they are personalized.  Indeed, I myself took that personalized approach  in my review of the performance of Adams’ chamber music.  I felt that the scope of his repertoire could be examined in the context of his mindset;  and I offered the premise that, because I was almost exactly six months older than Adams, I could claim some appreciation of that mindset.  Similarly, Foglesong could establish a context for discussing Adams’ work by virtue of his having been Adams’ student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music back when Adams was first finding his voice as a composer.

Foglesong’s approach reminded me that I actually had an audio document from that period, and it came from a rather unlikely source.  Indeed, the only reason I have that document is because it came from a time when I was voraciously trying to get hold of any recording of the music of Gavin Bryars that existed.  This was before Bryars made his first appearance on a recording in the ECM New Series, when the only sources of his music were in Brian Eno’s Obscure series;  and I shall always be grateful to the Downtown Music Gallery for making it possible for me to find the CDs that replaced those Obscure vinyls that had been so hard to obtain.

Most of them had only a single Bryars selection, which meant that they provided the opportunity to learn about other composers previously unknown to me.  One of the records had the title Ensemble Pieces.  Bryars’ “1, 2, 1-2-3-4” was the last track in an album that included two pieces by Christopher Hobbs, “Aran” and “McCrimmon will Never Return.”  The remaining tracks were devoted to a three-movement suite by John Adams (whose name I barely recognized at the time) entitled American Standard.  Reviewing that CD I now see that those tracks were taken from a live performance by The New Music Ensemble of The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which took place in March 23rd, 1973!

I know of no other recording of American Standard in its entirety.  The middle movement has become relatively well known since it was recorded by the San Francisco Symphony when Edo de Waart was the conductor.  The notes for the Obscure recording stated that a conductor is “not necessary.”  The impression I get from those notes is that the suite was originally conceived to be as much a theater piece as a musical one.  Now I find myself wondering whether or not anyone might work up the motivation to revive American Standard in its entirety with a bit more of an effort to restore the spirit in which it was first created.

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