Last night saw the end of John Adams’ first week as guest conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra. It was the start of his two week guest conducting run with the NSO, and it has been “highly anticipated” by many in the community. Maybe this is why I received an offer for $29 premium orchestra seats. Highly anticipated, or highly undersold?
All cheap shots aside, I do like Adams’ work for the most part, especially his opera Nixon in China, so I for one was looking forward to the experience. The program consisted of works by Copland, Adams, Elgar and Barber.
The first half started with Copland’s “Billy the Kid Suite”, followed by a piece by Adams based on a poem by Walt Whitman called “The Wound Dresser” featuring baritone, Eric Owens, who Adams also cast in his most recent opera, Dr. Atomic. The second half began with the highly recognizable and hauntingly emotive “Adagio for Strings”, by Samuel Barber. This was followed by Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. The “Adagio” and parts of the “Enigma Variations” notwithstanding, I was not highly impressed.
I listen to this kind of music all the time. By “this kind of music” I mean orchestral, classical, symphonic.. whatever you want to call it, music. All eras; all composers. I don’t discriminate. So, I always think, if my highly committed musical ear is struggling to hear harmonies and find context and meaning, I can only imagine what the average listener must be thinking. This was the case for Adams’ piece, “The Wound Dresser”.
The piece was set around a poem Walt Whitman wrote towards the end of his life. It reflects on his time during the Civil War when he helped care the thousands of wounded Union soldiers on what is now the National Mall. This large piece of land in Washington, D.C. was used at the time as a makeshift medical station, and the sanitary conditions were so awful many of the soldiers died not from their wounds but from infection. Whitman was so touched by his experience, and so loved these men he cared for, that he wrote “The Wound Dresser”.
Clearly, the emotional story is there within Whitman’s poetry, and could lend perfectly to a musical setting. However, I am not entirely pleased with how Adams’ constructed the music around the words. The music is definitely Adams’. One can hear that immediately. And there were moments where I felt, “Yes, that harmonic structure matches that emotion in the text.”, but the majority of the time, I felt the text’s meaning was lost in the tonal clusters and complex textures of a highly talented composer. The words spoke of guttural, raw emotions and ugly situations, yet I did not feel those emotions from the music most of the time.
Most interesting for me was what my friend who accompanied me said afterwards. When I asked him what he thought of the Adams’ piece, he simply said, “I didn’t get it.”. I think that sentiment speaks to what most average or occasional classical music listeners think when they hear many works by modern composers. The composer’s intent is lost in the over complexity of his/her work. Is tonal complexity necessary nowadays in order to be respected as a musician? Maybe I should rephrase that… is tonal complexity necessary in order to be respected BY musicians??? Are composers trying to create pieces that they find intellectually challenging or that appeal to average auditory experience?