Friday, October 23, 2009

We Built This City On Cinematically Influenced Post-Minimalism

Being that I skipped Oregon Public Broadcasting's first airing of it on Wednesday evening, I decided to catch a rerun of Dudamel's L.A. Phil premiere on Great Performances at 2 A.M., or at least the first half with John Adams' City Noir. (Mahler's first symphony, the second-half feature, is way too long for the middle of the night.) There is a daytime rebroadcast on Sunday but it will overlap about the last third of the Vikings/Steelers game, and if the game's too dismal to watch by that point then I'll be too sad to appreciate music anyway. I sort of suspect that the show will be available online at some point, more or less invalidating my effort to wake up in the dead of night, but I've been going to bed early and sleeping a lot this week anyway owing to quitting coffee yet again, so it worked out pretty comfortably. And anyway, televised culture! It's important! But not as much as televised football!

Presumably because the concert in question was a fairly high-profile cultural event in L.A., the show found room within its aggressively middlebrow framework to bring the star power. And by the star power I mean:
  • Footage of Jack Black lauding Dudamel's commitment to classical music education during a youth orchestra concert;
  • Stiff-looking host Andy Garcia conducting a breezy (yet stiff-looking) interview with Dudamel; and
  • The cameras in the concert hall picking out Tom Hanks, looking not entirely engaged, sitting a couple seats down from the composer.

To be fair to Andy Garcia, I remember finding him charming enough in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. Hanks' presence actually affected my impression, strongest in the first movement, that the work has something in common with John Williams' Catch Me If You Can soundtrack, which he reworked into a short concert piece for alto sax and orchestra called Escapades. (BIS has a fine recording of it with Branford Marsalis and the North Carolina Symphony, Grant Llewellyn conducting, also including a fine account of Ned Rorem's tone poem, Lions: A Dream; here also is a video of our younger cousin Aaron performing the solo part with his high school concert band in a wind ensemble arrangement of the same material.) That's a superficial connection, largely based on Adams' frequently exposed alto saxophone lines and some jazz orchestra touches early on -- Bernard Herrmann's woozy score for Taxi Driver, but for Tom Hanks, would seem a much more apt reference -- but City Noir comes off very much as a piece about L.A. (or maybe just The World) viewed through movies and through movie music, with syrupy cinematic influences blended as thoroughly as Adams' minimalist roots into the mix. It's hard to call the resulting style anything other than Romantic at this point.

The first movement has its moments, mostly of the rhythmically propulsive kind, and Adams plays winningly, as usual, with a big shiny orchestra -- I wonder how the economics of John Adams' popularity has affected his body of work; he keeps getting these high-profile, presumably well-funded, large-orchestra premieres -- though I wished for something with a little more structural backbone. The opening of the second movement was the most purely lovely part: a modernist haze out of which low, abrupt figures lurch into motion. The ending minutes of the final movement were purely pleasurable, too, with one of Adams' blazing fades-to-white (cf. Harmonielehre, The Dharma at Big Sur) transmogrified by grooving bongos (to my ear and sleepy brain anyway) into something like a celestial 1970s car chase.

The grabbiest thing in Adams' most recent work that I've heard, though -- both in City Noir and in Son of Chamber Symphony, which was streaming online earlier this year -- is how he deforms in places the straight-ahead rhythmic propulsion that still gives his music much of his shape. I remember two key instances of this in the chamber symphony: the second movement develops for a few minutes as a fairly straightforward, almost antique slow movement, then ramps up; and the last movement behaves like a boppy, retro-1980s-Adams piece until about two minutes from the end, when the beat dissolves somewhat and the work concludes in an unexpectedly contemplative space. (If these are inaccurate it's because I haven't listened to the piece for a few months.) Early in the third movement of City Noir, Adams puts some of his traditionally motoric figures through a sequence of accelerations, decelerations, and pauses, as though they keep getting caught at stoplights. It's not unprecedented in his music, but it seems like a stylistic parameter that he's varying more eagerly, and it's fun to hear.

I didn't get a good sense of Dudamel as a conductor -- that's hard to gauge from a new piece, and some combination of GP's sound mix and my TV speakers pancaked the non-solo voices together, making it tricky to judge the balance. High-energy, though, and he has more than enough charisma for the small screen. PBS should love him for years to come.


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