Short Ride in a Fast Machine
John Adams is generally associated with minimalism, a style of composition pioneered by Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich in which short musical motives are repeated, gradually changing the harmony or rhythm one note at a time. While the repetition in the works of Riley, Glass and Reich can seem interminable, Adams adds more drama and musical direction and a more accessible tonal and melodic language to his scores.
Born in Worcester, MA, Adams studied at Harvard University before moving west to settle in California. From 1979 to 1985, during his tenure as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony, he established a reputation with the success of such works as Harmonium, settings of three poems by Emily Dickenson.
In 1987, Adams’s collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars catapulted him into international fame with the Grammy-winning opera Nixon in China. In 1991, Adams composed The Death of Klinghoffer with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman. Not only did both works become the most performed operas in recent history, but both were also televised by PBS. Klinghoffer was filmed in 2003 on location in the Mediterranean aboard a cruise liner, the most authentic venue for the presentation of the opera on film. In September of 2003 Adams succeeded Pierre Boulez as Composer in Residence at Carnegie Hall.
Adams composed Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986 on a commission from the Great Woods Music Festival in Mansfield, Massachusetts where it was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is a good example of Adams’s particular take on minimalism; its melody – if one can call it that – is monotonous, but the rhythm and meter constantly and unexpectedly shift, as does the instrumentation, keeping a sense of both exhilaration and scariness. Towards the end of this short piece, Adams’s break-away into more rapidly changing notes in the trumpets, which carry the upper line, creates a quasi melody, or fanfare, with echoes of Aaron Copland and John Williams in its harmonic language.
Asked about the title, Adams said, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Following the success of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, Sergey Rachmaninov’s career took off and evolved successfully in three directions. He continued to compose, including his Symphony No. 2 in 1906-07, he traveled extensively both at home and in Western Europe as a virtuoso pianist, and he was a sought-after conductor. He tried to apportion his time evenly among the three.
Rachmaninov composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 for a long-planned first tour of the United States where he would be featured in the exhausting capacity of wearing all three hats. He was ambivalent about the tour and significantly pressed for time. He did not begin the Concerto until June, taking with him a silent keyboard on which he practiced assiduously during the crossing. The tour and the Concerto were an artistic and financial success. And just as Haydn had been wooed to make his permanent home in London after the success of his “Salomon,” or “London,” symphonies, both the Boston and Cincinnati Symphonies offered Rachmaninov their podiums, which he turned down. Ironically, in 1917, he was forced into exile in Paris, his fortune confiscated and his estate demolished during the violence of the Russian revolution. He continued to tour the Untied States, primarily as pianist, and with the imminence of war in Europe in 1939, he eventually relocated with his family in Beverly Hills where he died.
The Concerto premiered on November 28, 1909 with the New York Orchestra under Walter Damrosch and repeated two months later with the same orchestra under Gustav Mahler. Unfortunately, we know nothing of what transpired between these two giants. The Concerto gained immediate and enduring popularity, especially with pianists. It requires immense stamina from the soloist and attests to the composer’s melodic inventiveness and to his outstanding pianistic abilities.
The opening movement is particularly rich in thematic material with new ideas and moods introduced throughout. Over the throbbing orchestra, the piano enters on the third measure with a sad melody of narrow range, the melancholy mood prevailing throughout the elaborate development of the theme. The staccato second theme, introduced by the strings, is converted by the piano into a flowing lyrical, endless melody that increases the emotional tension by delaying the cadence. The extremely long written-out cadenza takes nearly a third of the entire movement and is briefly joined halfway through first by a flute, then by the other woodwinds. Finally, the opening theme returns and the movement ends in a whisper.
The Intermezzo is a fantasy on a single theme presented first on the oboe, followed with a variation by the orchestra and finally by the soloist in the major mode. The orchestra and piano continue in numerous permutations and variations that vacillate between moodiness and passion. A faster and livelier waltz-like variation, a duet between the piano and solo clarinet, brightens the mood towards the end of the movement. But the oboe leads the movement back to the opening mood, interrupted by an exuberant display of pianistic brilliance that leads without pause into the Finale. &
The third movement is in modified sonata form, using a transformation of the second theme from the first movement in a comparable role here. Rachmaninov saves the most sparkling writing for the piano in this culminating movement. It includes several elaborately decorated variations on both the opening and second themes. In a surprise move, a broad romantic melody of entirely new music announces the conclusion.
“Am I in your Light?” from Doctor Atomic
Following the topical – and controversial – Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Adams took on the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb in the opera Doctor Atomic, which the San Francisco Opera premiered in October 2005. The opera focuses on the events and personalities surrounding the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, code-named “Trinity.” In all his “historical” operas, Adams uses a signal event as the backdrop for an intense psychological drama. In Doctor Atomic, the protagonist is the chief physicist of the Manhattan Project, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose ambivalence and moral dilemma is the dramatic focus of the opera. The libretto by Peter Sellars is based on actual documents and diaries of the participants.
The aria “Am I in your Light?” Is from Act II, Scene 2 of the opera. Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife, tries to attract her husband’s attention, feeling neglected and abandoned as he agonizes and obsesses over the dilemma of splitting the atom.
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Unlike Beethoven, Johannes Brahms allowed not a trace of his compositional process to be revealed to the public. Any sketches, drafts or pre-orchestrations were consigned to flame, along with early works the composer considered inferior. We know, therefore, virtually nothing about the genesis of the Symphony No.3, only that it was composed during the summer of 1883 in the German town of Wiesbaden, some six years after the Second Symphony. There has been some discussion of one of the composer’s many infatuations, this time with a talented young contralto, Hermine Spies, with whom the fifty-year-old composer kept up an intense – but almost certainly chaste – relationship for several years. He apparently spent the fruitful summer in Wiesbaden because of her, but the extent of her influence on his creative output of that period, beyond a number of vocal works, is impossible to ascertain.
The Symphony, premiered on November 9, 1883 in Vienna, was a stupendous success, far greater than anything Brahms had ever experienced. Apparently, he was more than a little unnerved by the acclaim, remarking, “The reputation [it] has acquired makes me want to cancel all my engagements.”
The Third is the shortest of Brahms’s symphonies, containing thematic interrelationships among the movements that to some degree determine its compact structure. It is unusual also in the fact that three of its movements are in sonata form, in the absence of a scherzo/trio and in the general uniformity of tempo of all but the final movement.
One cannot discuss the Symphony without spending some time on the dramatic opening measures whose major-minor ambiguity pervades the entire work. The opening three-note motive in the horns, F-A-flat-F (an F minor third), is followed by a sharply descending melody line in the violin, first in F major, then immediately revised in F minor, the rest of the theme finally clarifying the major. Brahms biographer Jan Swafford notes the strong similarity, especially in rhythm, between the theme and the opening theme of Schumann’s Symphony No 3; and, given the close personal relationship between the two composers during Brahms’s youth, Swafford considers the thematic relationship as probably deliberate. & The second theme, presented by the clarinets, is a mini-variation form, stating the opening phrase three times in a more elaborate form.
In the second movement Andante, Brahms continues to play with the major-minor ambiguity. The movement, like the first, is in sonata form, but the first theme in C major is followed by a second in A minor, the reverse of the key order that would be expected. And in the recapitulation, Brahms omits repeating the second theme altogether, saving it for the Symphony’s last movement.
The third movement was the “hit” of the entire Symphony and was frequently encored at performances in Brahms’s time, when such concert etiquette as applause between movements and internal encores were common. This melancholy waltz with its triple meter and only slightly contrasting middle section are all that remain of the traditional classical minuet or scherzo and trio.
Certainly the darkest and most tempestuous movement in the Symphony, the finale begins clearly in F minor, accentuating the major/minor ambiguity that Brahms set up from the start. Immediately after the fluid opening theme, Brahms brings back in slightly altered form the second theme from the second movement that he had omitted in the recapitulation, this time also in F minor. Sections of minor storminess are resolved with a C major “heroic” theme first heard in the horns and cellos. But this symphony is not a Beethoven’s Ninth nor even a Brahms’s First. Rather than ending in a resounding climax, the darkness and ambiguity dissolve the final measures when Brahms brings back the closing bars of the first movement, with their clear-cut transformation into F major, but now serene, pianissimo.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016