Sunday, February 4, 2018

Adams Contra Schoenberg at SFCM

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Nicole Paiement conducted members of the New Music Ensemble in a program viewing the twentieth century from its two temporal extremes. The evening was relatively short but decidedly intense, juxtaposing two chamber symphonies representative of those respective extremes. At one end the program opening with Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 9, the first of his two chamber symphonies, which he composed in 1906. The other end was represented by the chamber symphony that John Adams composed in 1992.

In Opus 9 we encounter some of Schoenberg’s earliest serious efforts to reject the need for a tonal center. The piece is in E major; and there is plenty of surface-structure evidence to support that key signature. However, his opening theme of a series of perfect fourths rising across more than two octaves immediately disorients the ear with any sense of E (or any other pitch for that matter) as a “tonic.”

The fourths “motto” of Schoenberg’s Opus 9 (from Wikipedia, fair use)

Similarly, Schoenberg challenged the expectations associated with the category label “symphony.” The piece is in a single uninterrupted movement that followed the traditional Allegro-Development-Recapitulation of a symphony or sonata movement. However, there is a Scherzo situated between the Allegro and the Development and an Adagio between the Development and the Recapitulation. One might say that Schoenberg took a slice-and-dice approach to enveloping the entire structure of a symphony into a single unifying architecture.

None of this is particularly conducive to casual listening. Ultimately, Schoenberg had to identify those rehearsal numbers that marked the section boundaries for the sake of the conductor, so one can imagine the challenges facing even the most attentive listener. On the other hand the closing theme of the Allegro is as well-defined as it is tonal; and its return in the Recapitulation marks an intensely expressive Finale that is sure to get all juices flowing, even those of less attentively listeners who may have dozed off during the Adagio.

Paiement clearly put a lot of effort into preparing last night’s performance. There was an awkward hiccup on the opening beat; but after that the ensemble of five strings, eight woodwinds, and two horns almost immediately oriented themselves in the groove of Schoenberg’s Allegro exposition. Those familiar with the piece could enjoy the firm command of that closing theme, but just as moving was how Paiement approached the Adagio with all the lush attentiveness expected for an Adagio movement by Gustav Mahler. Mind you, it is unlikely that Opus 9 will ever be sit-back-and-enjoy music; but Paiement clearly knew how to push the bounds of expressiveness to make for a decidedly compelling listening experience.

Adams’ chamber symphony, on the other hand, can easily be taken as a “response” to the “call” of Opus 9. Ziying Hu’s notes for the program book cited Adams’ claim that the idea came to him while he was studying Schoenberg’s score. However, his efforts had to contend with his young son watching cartoons on television in the next room. That context is particularly meaningful to me, since I happened to be in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on an occasion when Adams led members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of a concert that probably took place somewhere around 1989.

I really had to struggle over whether to use the phrase “tried to lead,” rather than “led,” in that last sentence. Bearing in mind that this was a time when I was still struggling to get my own head around Opus 9, I came away with a strong impression that Adams was in the same boat. As a result it is hard for me to avoid thinking that Adams’ own chamber symphony amounted to a to-hell-with-it-all-I’m-gonna-do-it-my-way gesture.

Mind you, Adams was far from the only composer to see Carl Stalling (the prodigiously inventive mind behind the best of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies soundtracks) as an antidote to the hypertrophied intellectualism that dominated modernism during the second half of the twentieth century. Before encountering Adams’ efforts to take on Schoenberg, I had been bowled off my feet when I heard the Kronos Quartet play John Zorn’s “Cat O’ Nine Tails.” However, where Zorn had been mercurial in his madcap antics, Adams’ seemed to be going after Schoenberg with Thor’s hammer.

Ironically, this led to a new chamber symphony that was as aggressively assertive as the old one. Unfortunately, Paiement was not quite as successful at keeping all that aggression in check for the benefit of the listener. During the opening section of the first movement (“Mongrel Airs”), the cowbell was so loud that the rest of the ensemble (including the brass) was practically inaudible. The result was that expressive intensity dissolved into tantrum; and, while any number of different moods would follow as the score progressed, the reverberations of that tantrum never really receded.

Ultimately, the problem may have more to do with Adams than with even the best efforts to interpret him. Sometimes one can discover new ideas by taking a stance of opposition to the old ones. Other times one does better to begin with advocacy and then find a new direction for it. Perhaps Adams’ chamber symphony would have fared better (for the performers as well as the listeners) had his attitude been more positive.

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