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This week's featured recording:

Prelude on "Rhosymedre"
by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Probably the reason I associate this piece with summertime is that I used to play it on the final Sunday of the choir year in appreciation of our choir director, for whom this was a favorite piece. It is indeed "lovely," based on a hymn tune of that very name. With the church choir season right around the corner, here it is again. One more week to relax before the fall season begins! And here is the piece to do it.

"Classic" Blog (week of Aug. 25)
The blogger is on Summer vacation. Here are
some articles from the early days of the blog:

Monday 1/21/13
Caffeine society  
How to get all of your musical nutrition in one quick sonata

Wednesday 1/23/13
Practice your vegetables! 
aka, eat your scales

Friday 1/25/13
A new song 
It's as if our congregation has to sing something new once in a while

Billions and Billions of Arpeggios Sold
first posted March 12, 2011

Last month, the Metropolitan opera presented John Adams' "Nixon in China." If your idea of opera is that it has to be at least a hundred years old and sung by fat Vikings, you wouldn't know what to do with this production. People who attend operas regularly may not know what to do with it either. It was written within the last 25 years, and its composer is still alive. This means we all get to weigh in on it before it becomes a classic.

Well, sort of. Actually, the Met is acting like it already is a classic, which seems to play into their image. After all, the Metropolitan Opera wouldn't do anything risky and untested, would it?

That kind of narrative also suits the composer, or his publicist, who like the idea of operatic survival as a testimony to its quality. It came, it was criticized heavily by folks who didn't understand it, it stayed in the repertory, and it is still here. It was, and is groundbreaking, and it is also a great opera. That wouldn't be a bad deal if it turns out to be true, in a century or so.

So far it has had quite a number of performances, in several operatic venues around the world, which is highly unusual for a new opera. It has caused quite a bit of stir, too, but that's really par for the course. Unless Mr. Adams wanted his opera to be ignored, everyone and his neighbor would have to tell us what was wrong with it--or right with it. For starters, the opera is about a political event that happened rather recently. Opera plots don't usually do that, but John Adams has made a specialty of it in the years since. It is certainly an interesting concept. Potentially, that is going to date them rather fast, but we'll see in a few decades.

It isn't what everybody is row double-Z thinks that is important, though. It is about what the critics think. At least, those are the voices who go on record. When you want to find out who panned the premiere of some highly respected masterpiece by some great composer of a past era, some critic is on record, putting his retrospective foot in his mouth to tell us how terrible it is, how badly put together, how a slave to the latest fashion and won't last five years, and so on. There is quite a lot of that. Whenever I write my own program notes for a concert I do some research into the original performance. It is sometimes fun to trot out something short-sighted a critic said about a piece time has vindicated.

All of that is playing, like a pianist in a small room at the end of the hall late at night at the conservatory, in the back of my head as I read lines like the following, a little gem from Donal Henahan in the New York Times, commenting on "Nixon in China" for its first production. He didn't care for the composer's musical technique, something known as minimalism, in which a small musical idea is subject to a great deal of repetition, and a small, slow progression over the course of a sometimes lengthy piece. This is really not quite an accurate characterization of the Nixon in China music, but it is not too far from it, either: it is part of this composer's language, although it does not completely describe it, either. In "Nixon" there are a whole lot of passages that sound very much the same, bound by the same chugging rhythm and a bass line that keeps alternating between a C and an E-flat, or the same interval in another key. By the end of the first act, I felt like I'd heard the same measure quite few times, so I was amused to read this line, commenting about another musical idea that the composer used frequently without developing it in any great variety:

“Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger”

Not a bad line, is it? I mean, I know it is meant to be nasty, but sometimes a good line is just a good line, anyway. It doesn't hurt if I agree with it a little, too.

One of the things that bugs me about minimalism is the sort of industrial-strength sameness of so much of it. It sometimes comes across as a kind of religious meditation, but can just as easily sound like the product of an automated, mass-produced value set, a symptom of a society that likes quantity but only pays lip service to the importance of the individual, who is, after all, an anonymous customer, and who generates value by being part of the hydraulic force of demand for a product. In other words, there can be a spiritual vacuousness about this kind of approach.

This would be quite a charge to lay at the feet of any composer, and is not really my point anyway. I am more interested in how the master narrative developed into 'see how this fellow thought this opera was garbage, and see how wrong he was about it' in a relatively short time. It seemed to be doing such a service for the composer, who obviously would have felt that he had to overcome a lot of unsympathetic sniping in order that his two-year effort live to see more productions, not to mention achieve a reputation for himself.

I'm glad I read Mr. Adams' memoirs before writing this, so I could get inside his head a little. The publicity blurbs on the back call the back very 'honest,' and after awhile I could understand why. He doesn't assume any grandiosity, and is candid about his own dissatisfaction with his music, failed experiments, and the like. Obviously he has much to be proud of, too, and lets that shine through, but he doesn't brag about it. I found myself liking the guy. It may be that I like his writing, or his personality, more than I like his music (of which I still know relatively little), but there is something important about making contact as human beings. Once you've done that, you don't really want his opera to fail. I might still end up writing the same line as the New York critic in a review, but I'd do it with less relish.

And, at any rate, I want to hear the opera again. It made a mixed impression on me the first time--I've always liked the 'Chairman Dances' and I found interesting bits throughout the opera, but the repetitive nature of those chugging chords really got to me after a while. But after reading the memoirs I want to hear 'Dr. Atomic,' another opera of his produced at the Met. I'm particularly interested in 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' There will be further review.

Sometimes, though too rarely, the critics will admit their need to do this as well, and that opening night isn't always enough to form a good judgment. But fair, honest, thoughtful reviews don't live as long as the music to which they react. If it is positive, it disappears into the dustbin of time. A vituperative review, with a few good zingers, will probably be quoted for the life of the piece, perhaps for centuries. It is a dubious thing to be known for. One would think reviewers would be a little more careful, knowing that it is only by looking foolish that they will be remembered to posterity. But bless them! The  inexorable drive to express strong opinions keeps us marching, ever forward, into the laughing arms of history.


8/25 (3/12/11)