music, technology & life in pasadena, california

From Mahler to Adams

After rereading my remarks on Friday evening’s concert, I could see how excited I was upon returning home, but is it fair for a musician who has participated in a concert to offer his opinions, much as a music critic does? Obviously, sometimes the player’s viewpoint can be too close or too protective of his own orchestra or conductor to offer an unbiased take, but so little has been written from the player’s point of view that I think this type of personal insight can be valuable to other musicians or music fans. So, in a forum such as this informal personal blog, I think the answer is yes.

Regardless, LA Times music critic, Mark Swed, had much the same reaction to Friday evening’s concert, offering these accolades in Monday’s edition:

The performance was unlike any other, not just because it was a striking interpretation or because the Philharmonic played with riveting clarity, expression, color, delicacy and, when wanted, ferocious might but also because Disney Hall was that mountaintop, a place where sounds, whether small or large, had the kind of immediacy and intimacy that a listener could feel as though he were one-to-one with Mahler.

Salonen laid the score out with extreme clarity… he treated the last movement as an exhilarating, slightly mad rush to points unknown… it was a phenomenal concert and a phenomenon of musical nature.

The magic was infectious and couldn’t help spilling off the stage into the audience. This is why I love to play music. Even if it happens just once or twice a year, it’s a powerful drug that makes players continue to search for their next fix.

This week the Philharmonic tackles John Adams’, Naïve and Sentimental Music. A large 70-minute orchestral work, as close to a symphony as Adams has yet written, it presents an ambitious and original musical vocabulary that while being wholly and uniquely Adams, echoes a contemporary nod to Mahler through liquefaction and the twisting through time of almost a century later.

I first met John Adams at the Ojai Festival in 1993, where he conducted Shostakovich’s almost-never-heard Jazz Suite, which includes a ukulele part. When he gave me a bow at the end of the piece, I thought, wow, here’s a guy who’s not afraid of obscure challenging works that others might just toss off as inconsequential or otherwise. And to give a bow in a classical concert to the ukulele player? I was hooked for life! When I said goodbye to him backstage after the concert, I told him that guitarists were waiting for a guitar concerto. He laughed as we parted and later I thought how dumb it had been to say that.

In late 1998, the orchestra phoned to ask me if I’d be interested in playing a new piece by Adams, commissioned by the Philharmonic and dedicated to Esa-Pekka. They told me it required an amplified steel-string guitar and that the second movement was almost entirely devoted to a beautiful and melancholy guitar solo. The rehearsals and premiere concerts of Naïve that followed in early 1999 were an incredible honor to be a part of and the piece was wildly well received in both Los Angeles and on a subsequent tour to New York a few weeks later. The New Yorker magazine, which covered the NY premiere wrote:

"...he has arrived, perhaps by accident, at a startling new sound: Mahler in the desert, a lonesome guitar."

There’ve been two more performances by the orchestra since then, at UCLA’s Royce Hall (where as guest artist, John Adams brought the entire LA Phil with him as his guests) and another trip to NYC’s Avery Fisher Hall as part of a tour that included playing Adams’ El Nino at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I’m looking forward to this week’s performances on Friday January 19 and Saturday January 20 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as a run-out performance to Orange County’s new Segerstrom Hall on the afternoon of Sunday January 21. In a serendipitous twist, my recently-passed mother's birthday is on that Sunday, and Naïve's second movement is titled "Mother of the Man".

Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Adams are a perfect fit, not only in their contemporary conductor-composer relationship, but because Salonen is a formidable composer himself, his ear is attuned to the needs and requirements of this century’s most visible modern composer. It’s a relationship that is exciting to see in person and will no doubt be seen as historic many years into the future.

All this and a steel-string guitar added to the orchestral mix? As John Adams once remarked to me, “Somebody’s got to keep you guys working!”

FYI: I’ll also play banjo, mandolin and guitar on Adams’ Gnarly Buttons on Tuesday January 23 at WDCH with the composer conducting as part of his 60th birthday celebration.

January 16, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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