Deep Background
21 Nov 2011
Inside the Classics

Sarah and I are already well into the planning process for our next set of ItC concerts in late January, and early this week, we reach the critical stage when everything needs to be firmed up and final, at least as far as the orchestra’s part in the proceedings is concerned. Since the first halves of our concerts are highly scripted, every member of the orchestra needs very clear and readable excerpt books containing the bits and pieces of music we’ll be asking them to play, and our library staff needs plenty of time to put those books together. That time pressure is always the worst for our January shows, since the library is currently drowning in the hundreds of pages of Christmas music that must be prepped, bowed, and filed where the musicians can get them in the coming weeks. Basically, there’s a good chance that Valerie Little, the outstanding librarian (and talented violist!) assigned to our series, won’t even get around to assembling our excerpt books until early January, but on the off chance that she finds herself with a spare moment in December, Sarah and I need to be sure she has an accurate list of what we need. So following some preliminary chatter we had this past week about where we might want to take our exploration of John Adams, we’ll be putting that excerpt list together this Tuesday, which also means we’ll need to firmly outline the entire narrative arc of the first half.

The narrative part is particularly tricky for this show, since the featured composer is a) alive, and b) not participating directly in the show or its preparation. When we initially chose to feature My Father Knew Charles Ives, I thought about getting in touch with Adams and asking for his guidance in where we might take the show. After all, he’s known for being a genuinely nice guy, he has long connections to the Minnesota Orchestra (primarily through our former concertmaster, Jorja Fleezanis, and her late husband, the musicologist Michael Steinberg,) and it never hurts to ask, right?

In the end, though, I decided against contacting him, for one simple reason. While our series has always been partly about allowing the composer’s voice to speak through his music, it’s also become very much about the narrative arc that we decide to craft around the music, and in this particular instance, that arc needs to go well beyond John Adams. It needs, in fact, to reach almost to Judd Greenstein.

When we (micro)commissioned Judd to write the piece that will close out our 2011-12 ItC season, we knew that one of the challenges of the year would be finding ways to draw our audience into the world of new music. After we announced the repertoire for this season, a few angry e-mailers complained that we were taking the series away from the direction of “classics,” and yes, there were even some canceled subscriptions. Which is frustrating, since Sarah and I are firm in our belief that there are a fair number of outstanding composers walking among us today, but also understandable, given all the challenges I outlined last spring.

So in coming up with this season’s non-Judd-intensive programs, we decided that we needed to build a bridge that could carry the average ItC concertgoer from music with which they are already comfortable to music with which they could easily become comfortable if it wasn’t just dropped on their heads suddenly and without warning. Starting with Shostakovich was an easy decision – he’s a familiar composer, very much of the 20th century. He had a distinct style of composition, and he used driving rhythmic patterns as a primary component of his work, which is a thing that became very important to later composers.

To get from Shostakovich to Judd, though – that’s a neat trick. Concert music went through so many twists and squeezes and arguments and reconciliations during the second half of the 20th century that it sometimes seems like the connections from 2011 to 1937 (when Shostakovich’s 5th symphony was premiered) are less a bridge than a sinewy mass of barely connected fibers. There really was no one composer who we could point to as a bright line between the comfort food that orchestral audiences crave and the molecular gastronomy (yes, another food metaphor) that many of today’s young composers are engaged in.

Still, John Adams gets awfully close to being that perfect connector. One of the original minimalists, he established a distinctive (and relatively accessible) style as a young composer, then gradually evolved that style over time. Many of his more revolutionary works came early in his career, but some of his recent efforts (My Father Knew… included) have a historic sweep to them that he probably couldn’t have pulled off back when he was writing Harmonielehre or Klinghoffer. His music challenges the listener when he wants it to, but he almost never loses his grasp on the audience’s need for a certain level of familiarity, too.

Of course, Adams’ music doesn’t sound in the least like Judd’s, but that’s not really the point. Listening to new music is about challenging your mind in a way that might be difficult at times, but still gives you some degree of emotional or intellectual pleasure. So we don’t actually need our Adams show to bring you all the way to Judd’s doorstep. We just have to get you close enough to make the next leap seem attainable and worth your while.

…and we have to do that by Tuesday. sigh.

<February 2020>

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