Monthly Archives: December 2008

El Niño, Noble Beast.

Today, I had the pleasure of seeing John Adams’ ‘El Niño’ played by the SLSO, and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. 

I’ll start by saying that I had extremely high expectations going into this. I usually try to check my bias at the door along with my coat and hat, but with John Adams it’s difficult. He’s one of my very favorite composers, and definitely my favorite American one. 

That being said, I think that I went to the Powell Hall today expecting another ‘Nixon in China’ or ‘Doctor Atomic’. That was a mistake. ‘El Niño’ is nothing like either of those. ‘El Niño’  is an oratorio about the birth of Jesus Christ.

I thought the instrumentation and orchestration were outstanding. John Adams is one of the most discernible composers of the 20th century, in my opinion; his work cannot be mistaken for the work of anyone else. His incredible understanding of the orchestral setting gives him a real advantage. 

I thought that the chorus parts were really well done, and well sung. I don’t really consider myself an expert on vocal performance, so I’ll just add that I thought that all six soloists were great, and that the baritone was particularly fantastic. He sounded a lot like James Maddalena (who played Nixon in ‘Nixon in China’, and who was also in ‘Doctor Atomic’). 

I suppose I felt like the overture section could have been played a bit better by the orchestra. They sounded a bit stiff and disjointed at first, but eventually fell into the stride of the piece. Most John Adams pieces require extreme technical precision, and I felt like some members of the orchestra may not have been up to the challenge. Granted, it was an afternoon show and the house was only half-full. I don’t know if that’s an excuse.

Either way, ‘El Niño’ was a mostly solid program- another good entry in the canon of performances I’ve seen of Adams’ work (David Robertson always includes at least one John Adams piece in each season, which I think is great). I heard someone say on the radio today that the SLSO is the world’s leading interpreters of John Adams’ music, which I think is really cool. Sometimes it feels good to be in the center of things.

And in the rock n’ roll scene…

I just got ahold of Andrew Bird’s new album, Noble Beast. I’ve been a serious fan of his music for years now, and he never ceases to impress me. For those who don’t know, he’s a folk-rocker who sings, whistles, plays guitar, plays violin, bangs on things, accompanies himself on glockenspiel, and uses a looping machine so that he can do all of those things at the same time. He usually performs alone, and he is usually the only one who performs on his albums, which are heavily orchestrated.

Noble Beast is his best album. He builds on what he was trying to do on the last album, and it works. In his last one, Armchair Apocrypha, he started  working with Martin Dosh and doing more experimenting with percussion and rhythms, which was a good contrast to all his strings and singing. I felt like the final product of Armchair Apocrypha was disappointing- I had seen him play the songs many times live, and I didn’t feel like the album captured the essence and feeling of many of them.

Andrew Bird’s new album takes everything good from his past two albums, and polishes it into a crisp, exciting new collaboration. I feel like it’s his most cohesive work, and the best display of all of his talents combined. In that way, the new album is reminiscent of John Adams’ career as a post-minimalist. 

When you look at John Adams in the context of 20th century music, he’s really one of the first people to take elements from almost all facets of the musical century and use them to his advantage. His music contains elements of atonality, serialism, minimalism, etc. In a way, John Adams represents the ultimate achievement of the whole of 20th century music in the same way that Noble Beast represents Andrew Bird’s many efforts as a musician. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it makes sense to me.

Anyways, pick up Noble Beast- it’s a really fantastic album.


Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Liszt.

Today the SLSO played a program titled “Warm Music for Cold Nights”. They started off with Barber’s ‘Essay No. 1’, which was pretty enjoyable. I never really find anything to dislike with Barber. He always has something interesting to say, and that was the case with Essay No. 1. I felt like it was very well organized- I loved the brass parts on it, especially the horns.

The Chopin was pretty well done, but not perfect. I’m not a huge fan of ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’ in it’s entirety, but I’ve always been totally in love with the second movement of it (I have the Emanuel Ax version on my iTunes). The third is pretty enjoyable, too. I felt like the piano soloist, Louis Lortie, did the best with what had had to work with. Maybe the performance was weak, in part, because of the visiting conductor, Michael Christie. I felt like his conducting was really disconnected and reserved, which is sometimes a good thing, but not always. He lead the orchestra too much, and never really allowed them to fall into a comfortable stride with some of the longer passages of the piece. Call me a musician (I am), but I always prefer a more animated conductor who isn’t afraid to show me exactly what he wants. That’s how wonderful music is made.

I felt like Christie loosened up a bit for some of the Tchaikovsky, which I did enjoy. I’m not always a huge fan of his works, but ‘Suite No. 3’ was truly a comforting piece of warm music for a cold night.

In other news this week…

I attended a piano recital by my good friend Michael McElvain. Look for his name in a few years- you’ll find it attached to some major works. For his recital, he gave an incredibly inspired performance of Bartok’s ‘Out of Doors’. The piece itself has always been something of a delight for me, but listening to Michael play it was really a treat. He has told me on many occasions that the ‘Night Music’ movement is one of his very favorite things to play, and I can feel his love for it in every note and every cluster.

He also played Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, which was an out-of-this world experience for me. The piece starts on this really pensive low G. It just kind of lingers for a few seconds, and then again. Quarter notes. And if you know what’s coming after that, in the next thirty minutes, it gives those quarter notes an entirely new context. They almost beckon to you. They say, “Are you ready? Are you sure?” They say, “Get ready. It’s coming.” It’s almost a little scary. I could listen to the first 15 seconds on repeat.

That it for now. There are some really exciting things coming up in the near future. Next week is John Adams’ ‘El Nino’, which some critics have said is his masterpiece. I’m really crawling out of my skin, waiting for it. A few weeks later, SLSO is doing a live performance of the soundtrack to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ while showing it on the projection screen. That should be really fun, I already have tickets to go with my wonderful girlfriend.

Ives: Concord Sonata

I’ve always been a fan of Charles Ives, but at the same time, I’ve always known that there’s something about his music that I’m either not getting, or don’t understand. I’ve enjoyed his symphonies and piano works, but there’s always been something missing for me. I’ve craved a deeper, intellectual understanding of what Ives was trying to do. And I think I found it tonight.

I was listening to his Piano Sonata No. 2: ” Concord, Mass.,  1840-60″, and a particular passage really stuck out to me. It was one of those moments where everything kind of stops, and you sit there in total awe of what you’re hearing. Maybe because you didn’t expect it, or possibly because it’s just so fantastical that you can’t really believe it. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I just had a similar experience.

It’s been stated by Ives that this sonata is about transcendentalism. First published in 1920, the piece has four movements:

I. “Emerson”
II. “Hawthorne” 
III. “The Alcotts” 
IV. “Thoreau” 

It has been derived by theorists that Ives, a frequent lifter of motifs and themes, used some of Beethoven’s ideas, namely the opening bars of his Fifth Symphony (which I noticed prominently in “The Alcotts”). I heard something else as well. 

I was listening to “Hawthorne”, and there was this seemingly endless run of strange arpeggios about four and a half minutes in. He ended on a fantastically dissonant chord, only to come back in with one of the most beautiful entrances I’ve ever heard in music. It sounded like the first notes of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto to me, which isn’t really that surprising considering his tendencies. He started along that track, and then suddenly burst back into an absurd banging, only to resolve seconds later into the same beautiful cadence. The next section was unbelievable. It’s a short chorale that sounds like a forest clearing, with random non-chord tones hovering above it. Like Ives was being chased through the jungle and then suddenly arrived in a serene oasis and found himself short of breath for it’s beauty. Shortly after, the section turns into an upbeat, almost jazz-like period.

That’s what changed my mind about Ives.

I managed (after two hours) to figure out how to upload the section that I was talking about. If you click the following link, it’ll take you to a page where you can listen. Enjoy.

Hawthorne – Ives