Recent Listening: Adams and Ellington

Ellington: Such Sweet Thunder. I pulled out this album, surely one of the most distinguished of the master’s output for Columbia Records in the ’50’s, because I was re-reading David Schiff’s The Ellington Century, which includes a movement-by-movement discussion of the title work. As always with Ellington, the individuality of each player’s contribution, perfectly framed by the composer, makes up an astonishing orchestral palette. The CD version of the album includes a lot of bonus tracks, not all of which are at as high a level as the suite itself, but, of course, anything by Ellington is of interest. Do check out Schiff’s book, which is an intriguing take on 20th-century music history that puts Ellington at the center, rather than Stravinsky or Schoenberg, in addition to having lots of great insights on Ravel, Berg and more. I look forward to reading Schiff’s new book on Carter which has just come out.

Adams: The Chairman Dances. San Francisco Symphony; Edo de Waart, conductor. This is a collection of orchestral pieces by John Adams, which I missed when it was released by Nonesuch in the late ’80s. In addition to the title piece, it includes Christian Zeal and Activity, Tromba Lontana, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Common Tones in Simple Time. I had only heard the widely-performed Short Ride and The Chairman Dances before. Short Ride is one of those perpetual motion concert openers that became a widely cultivated genre at one point; I think Chris Rouse’s The Infernal Machine is a more more finely shaped example of such a piece. My favorite piece on the album was Common Tones in Simple Time. The style of this 20-minute piece resembles that of the grand canvases of Harmonielehre and Naive and Sentimental Music, those symphonies in all but name that constitute Adams’ full integration of post-minimalist (maybe post-post-minimalist) materials with those of the romantic and early 20th century repertoires. Adams’ music plays such a prominent role in the American symphonic world; I think the interest on the part of younger composers in extended performance techniques and edgy idioms is in part a reaction against his work. It will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings the other way any time soon.

Operas With a Future

Several of the pieces listed in the group of short essays in this Sunday’s NY Times about recent operas deserving of further performances were what you would expect, with works by Adams, Saariaho, and Adès featured. Two notable omissions that I would have included are Messiaen’s St. Francis and Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I was surprised that the Messiaen was left out; sadly, not surprised about the masterful but under-appreciated Harbison. What would you have included?

Coming Attractions – 2011-2012

– Go here for a press release on the upcoming Miller Theater season, including a massive James Dillon 3-night extravaganza and Composer Portraits including John Zorn and George Lewis.

– the Orchestra 2001 website lists three programs for next year, with Boulez, Adams, Pärt, Andriessen, and a Crumb premiere – the seventh book in his remarkable American Songbook series.

CityMusic Cleveland offers 24 free concerts next season.

Network for New Music’s focus is on what they are calling Word Music, with big pieces by Lewis Spratlan and Matthew Greenbaum, and collaborations including one with The Crossing.

Sunday Afternoon Miscellany

– go here for video on The Crossing, Donald Nally’s splendid new music choir here in Philly. They began their Month of Moderns today.

– first you say, ‘huh?” – but then you say, “of course.” You are reacting to news of The Cleveland Orchestras programs of Bruckner and John Adams at Lincoln Center next month.

– I will be heading up to NYC this week to hear Erwartung with Deborah Voigt and the NY Phil. Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead and Shostakovich 1st also on the show. The Rachmaninoff and Schoenberg kind of go together; how will the Shostakovich fit?


Revisiting Fred Hersch

David Hajdu’s article on Fred Hersch in the Times Magazine several weeks ago led me to pull out some of his recordings, in particular the 3-CD set he released on Nonesuch in 2001. I’m especially fond of the solo work that dominates this album. One highlight is the astonishing version of Cole Porter’s  “So in Love”. In the booklet notes Hersch calls it “probably the slowest ballad I ever recorded.” The performance lasts nearly 8 minutes, yet consists of a brief intro, a coda, and only two choruses! Now, part of the deal on that is the form* of the song. Porter notated the piece in cut time, with the opening notes of the melody (“Strange dear, but true dear”) notated as half, half tied to half, half, etc. This means the form of the piece is the usual AABA, but each section is 16 bars, except the last A which is extended. Does anyone play the piece as though the tune was written in 4/4 quarter notes – with a walking quarter note bass? The number of bars would obviously be halved, and the piece would be closer to a conventional 32 bars (plus that extension). Why does the mind rebel at that idea? The booklet notes say that Hersch usually plays the piece in 5/4 – presumably a bar of 5/4 for each bar of cut time – a vastly more sophisticated way of filling in those long measures than the usual cocktail piano strategy of a bossa nova or even, Lord help us, a rhumba feel. The song is from Kiss Me Kate, and the performance on the Broadway cast album is about 72 to the half note, a solid andante. Hersch plays the piece with a basically steady quarter note pulse of left hand chords at  about 60, but he plays the piece in 6/4! (Or, call the pulsing chords triplets – the notation would differ, my point is the same.) Two bars of cut time are covered in 6 pulsing chords. So: on Broadway, two measures of cut time lasted 4 beats at 72 (3.33 seconds); in Hersch’s version, two bars of the original cut time now last 6 beats at roughly 60 (6 seconds) (or 3 beats at 30, if you like, which would be off the metronome). The 6/4 feels utterly natural, so much so that at first I thought the piece was being played in 4/4, with generous rubato. There certainly is rubato here, but the metric framework has been altered from the original version.

Of course, just playing slowly is no special feat (after all, we’ve all worked with drummers who seemed to make a specialty of it, and I don’t mean that in a positive way.) What makes the performance a tour-de-force is the way Hersch is able to spin out a line that keeps up the continuity despite the luxuriously slow pace. The duple/triple tension between the pulsing chords and the tune helps keep the melodic thread taut. It feels a bit like the slow movement of the Ravel Concerto in G** with its steadily pulsing left hand chords, though the right hand melody in the Ravel does not offer an opportunity for the wonderfully elastic rubato that Hersch brings to bear here.

Hersch remarks in the booklet about this tune that “as a solo, it struck me more as an intimate confession between one person and another, almost like whispering in bed.” It’s an apt image for a haunting performance. Pillow talk may be intimate like this recording, but never this eloquent.


*Allen Forte (yes, the same fellow known for writing about post-tonal music) writes perceptively about the superbly shaped melody of this piece in The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era.

**John Adams has recently blogged interestingly about Ravel here.

Watching Dudamel

I enjoyed the new John Adams symphonic suite, City Noir, on the PBS broadcast of the L.A. Phil’s inaugural concert with Gustavo Dudamel. But beyond enjoying the piece, it was a pleasure simply to see 30 minutes of PBS airtime given to a new American composition.

Another pleasure was to see colleague Tim McAllister from the Prism Saxophone Quartet playing the virtuosic saxophone solos in the Adams. His vivid and impassioned playing was a highlight of the piece. Head over to the Audio Samples page at to hear Prism playing a clip from my Short Stories.