March 04, 2007

Music Review: A Flowering Tree, by John Adams

Last Friday Night, I was less than ten feet from John Adams’s butt as he conducted the American premiere of his new opera, A Flowering Tree, with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Hall. I had bought the tickets months ago, & was psyched about my second row seats, but when we arrived for the pre-concert talk, I realized they were way to the left side. The way the stage was set up, the orchestra was on the left, & the percussion & platforms for the singers & Javanese dancers was on the right – so that far forward, we would only be able to see three violinists & the conductor! So right as the lights dimmed, we moved front & center. It was intense being that close to the composer conducting his own work, not to mention the opera singers, who can be deafening at that proximity. As for nearness – relative in its importance depending on the level of celebrity one is near – I was once closer to Mr Adams, as he walked down the aisle before Dr Atomic in 2005. My friend Mrs Bonnie Anne Whiting Smith was once physical shook by the shoulders by John Adams, something approaching annunciation for her. At Oberlin Conservatory, she had told him that she played the difficult drum part for his Chamber Symphony, &, apparently moved by so infamously tricky a multi-percussion part being conquered by such a petite young redhead, rapturously embraced & moved her. I believe, so I’m told, she was osmosisally impregnated with triplets.

A Flowering Tree was beautiful, a welcome relief after the abstract density of Dr Atomic, & his Pulitzer Prize-winning 9-11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls, both of which seemed to be moving in the dark direction of some of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Sound Mass”-style compositions of the ’60s. If you don’t know what that means, read: huge, dissonant movements of sound. Adams’s music of the 1980s always had a pulse, & his orchestration has gotten denser with thick, Stravinsky-esque textures & difficult asymmetrical rhythms. However, the groove & lushness of the texture made his sound very approachable & fun. Somehow, in the past decade, he’s completely lost his groove (except in some amazing clearings, like one prophetic aria in El Niño, “And I will shake the heavens….”). So this density of atmospheric texture became more & more what the music was about, & some of us were sad about that. Don’t get me wrong, when it is modal & beautiful, like the Love Duet in Dr Atomic or the guitar solo in Naïve & Sentimental Music, it's almost transcendent.

Alex Ross, in the New Yorker last November, writing about the Vienna premiere, declared that A Flowering Tree was “unlike anything that the fifty-nine-year-old composer has written”. He, & many other critics, have seen it primarily as a response or palinode to Dr Atomic, & wasted time comparing them. (It was written in less than a year immediately following the premiere of Dr Atomic.) I think it sounded a lot like El Niño, his nativity oratorio from 2000, & I view the music as an expansion on many of the ideas he developed there. His vocal melodies this decade are blander & less direct than his 1980s’ operas, but they all share a certain shape & style. The orchestration for A Flowering Tree was incredible from beginning to end, the whole thing just sparkled.

I’ll let Alex Ross describe the plot:

A Flowering Tree, for its part, takes off from The Magic Flute. In both operas, the love of a prince and a maiden endures after a long separation and painful trials. There is also a kinship with Richard Strauss’s autumnal masterpiece “Daphne,” based on the ancient Greek myth of arboreal metamorphosis. But, where Daphne’s transformation is permanent, Kumudha, in the Indian tale, can move in and out of her tree shape when pitchers of water are poured on her body. The Prince falls in love with her and marries her. The trials begin when the Prince’s sister exploits the magic for public show and neglectfully leaves Kumudha trapped in a grotesque hybrid state, whereupon she crawls away from her husband in shame. Only when the Prince recognizes her voice in a travelling band of minstrels is she restored to humanity.

The environmental themes are there without his having to muck with the text or spell anything out. I see Kumudha as a representation of our interconnectedness with Nature, even especially trees – we understand that better now than when the fairy tale was written, but we feel it less. When the Prince’s sister exploits her & mutilates her, it defiles both the human & the arboreal, & there is somehow a direct connection to that mutilation & the poverty & misery immediately following. Exploiting nature leads to the debasement of humanity, which leads to the Prince’s despair & consequent asceticism.

Here’s what John Adams wrote about it in the Guardian:

The libretto is written in English and Spanish. I knew that the chorus in the first performance would be the remarkable Schola Cantorum of Caracas, and I wanted them to sing in their native tongue. Using two languages is also a reaffirmation of my feeling that we are living in a time of global cultural awareness, with all its pain and wonder. In the US, there is a panic response to immigration that has recently expressed itself in "English-only" ballot initiatives. I suppose my pleasure in writing a polyglot libretto is a means of reaffirming my feeling that the best culture is the one with the richest variety of sources. And, of course, Spanish is a terrific language for singing.


My previous opera, Doctor Atomic, first performed in San Francisco in October last year, is about the most threatening matter in our contemporary lives - man's new-found ability to destroy not only himself but his natural environment. One can think of the atomic bomb not only as an immensely destructive weapon, but also as a metaphor for the power to corrupt our "nest", Earth. In the opera, there is a disconnection between feminine and masculine types of energy. The atomic scientists, all male, are absorbed in their invention, caught up in a race to build the weapon. I do not criticise what they did, because it was wartime and they began their work in the belief that they were saving civilisation from the threat of Hitler. But we see the invention take on a sinister life of its own, and even Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the project, becomes aware that the weapon will eventually threaten all human life. The women in Doctor Atomic are in a powerless situation, but they have a moral consciousness, able to see into the future, like Cassandras.

In A Flowering Tree, the male/female relationships begin as traditional class and gender inequality - a rich prince dominating a poor peasant girl - but what follows is a story of self-discovery and humility that resolves in an image of wholeness and love. And I loved the fact that, after three years of working on an opera about plutonium and high-energy physics, the most advanced technology in my new opera is an elephant.

I don’t read in that that John Adams is becoming a Luddite: he uses technology to compose, & electro-acoustically in performance. What I’ve always loved about his music is that breadth of assimilation. He lets himself be inspired by the whole gamut of Classical Music from Mozart thru Schoenberg & Glass, along with world & popular musics. The result is a kind of twenty-first-century Americana – not in a postmodern way, with its leveling of hierarchies, but in the cultured multi-culturalism felt on the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area.

My biggest complaint is Peter Sellars, the opera director & Adams’s collaborator for twenty-five years. He likes to keep the stage busy with dancers & baroque accouterments, as if our attention spans have been reduced to the pithiness of the so-called MTV-generation. Also the self-conscious multi-culturalism which subtly blends in the music, Sellars thinks he can cheesily glorify on stage, with Javanese dancers & the like. I loved those dancers, but something about it didn’t mesh. The constant movement was distracting. I think it’s just time for Adams to move on from Sellars, whose innovation may have peaked in the ’80s. And my god he was schmaltzy in the pre-concert talk.

No comments: