A Beacon for American Music: Rooted, Rambunctious Adams

For some time now, my attendance at rock concerts has been spotty, to say the least. Recently, however, I was surprised to find myself at an event that, despite its billing as a classical-music performance, reminded me of nothing so much as one of those great hard-rock hootenannies of the 60’s, minus the strobe lights, the screaming teenagers and the scent of pot in the air. The arena was Avery Fisher Hall; the rockers were the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by their Finnish music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen; and the music was by Béla Bartók and John Adams, two composers whom I had not previously suspected of being in quite the same league as Jimi Hendrix.

The warm-up act was Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin , Op. 19, an expressionistic icon of the 1920’s whose lurid colors and feverish energy make it the musical equivalent of one of the more alluringly noxious products in the cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Mr. Salonen, who at 44 still looks scarcely out of knee pants, whipped the orchestra into high-decibel delirium, abandoning all pretense of podium politesse to ensure that every coruscating detail hit you smack between the eyes. At the end, the predominantly gray-haired listeners erupted into a stunned ovation, grinning and cheering as though they couldn’t wait for “Purple Haze.”

The star turn came after the intermission with Mr. Adams’ Naïve and Sentimental Music , which was composed in 1998-99. This 45-minute extravaganza aspires to the sweep of a Bruckner symphony in the guise of an American diorama, conjuring up everything from a whistling cowboy to Hollywood schmaltz, mob anarchy, whack-down-the-forest empire-building, lackadaisical jazz and starry nights out on some lonesome prairie. Again, Mr. Salonen and the orchestra-whose marvelous recording of the work has recently been released by Nonesuch-kept it all together with crackling precision and relentless intensity. And again, the audience went giddily nuts. Behind me, a man murmured to his companion, “And they said the symphony concert was dead?”

Recently, there have been signs all over the place that the wall between classical and rock music is finally beginning to crumble. If much of this development is due to the rise of a better class of rockers who have warmed up to Olivier Messiaen, a lot of it is also owed to an eagerness by young classical musicians to get down and lighten up. Not surprisingly, the classical prime movers are two California maestros-Mr. Salonen in Los Angeles and his counterpart with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas-and the Golden State’s unofficial composer in residence, John Adams. Lincoln Center is currently celebrating the music of Mr. Adams in a festival that runs until May 17. And though Lincoln Center also houses the city’s-and probably the country’s-leading conservatory, the Adams Festival confirms what I have long thought to be true: The beacon for American classical music’s way out of its isolation can be found not at the Juilliard School on Broadway and West 66th Street, but on the northern coast of California, at a hideaway called Brushy Ridge.

According to visitors’ descriptions, Brushy Ridge-which is where Mr. Adams does much of his composing-stands as a metaphor for what he’s up to. Its foundation is a rocky hillside, and its outlook includes redwood forests, spacious meadows and, somewhere in the near distance, the Pacific. “Eyes wide open” is a good way to describe the rooted, rambunctious music that this composer has been writing since he emerged in the mid-70’s as part of the minimalist vanguard that was playing hooky from the school of atonality, which had alienated millions of music lovers after the Second World War. From the beginning, Mr. Adams-who moved to San Francisco in 1971, after a New England upbringing and a Harvard education-embraced the chug-a-chug pulsation, the glacial modulations and the high-testosterone energy that characterized his minimalist elders, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who had found inspiration in the hypnotic repetitions of Eastern music. Yet, as the titles of Mr. Adams’ early major works- Shaker Loops , Phrygian Gates , Harmonium -suggest, he remained committed to writing music that exploited the formal richness of the Western classical tradition while honoring its ancient communal function. Over the years, Mr. Adams has composed an astonishing variety of works, including two operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), whose bristling relevance to current events should make their immediate revival mandatory. ( Nixon was brilliantly revived in London by the English National Opera just a few years ago.)

Mr. Adams is now 55, and in the past several years, he has arrived at a place of greater ardor than ever in his desire to earn for his music a central place in American culture. Naïve and Sentimental Music takes its title from Schiller’s famous distinction between poets for whom art is a natural form of expression and those for whom it’s a self-conscious act. Despite the work’s Whitmanesque range, it’s all of a piece-a seamless blending of cool irony and ecstatic earnestness that takes the measure of America’s desire for transcendence amid turbulence with more verve than anything I have heard since Copland’s great ballet scores of the 1940’s. Along with the incandescent Violin Concerto of 1993, it is, I believe, his masterpiece.

Mr. Adams’ other large, ambitious work of recent years is El Niño , a two-hour oratorio that harks back to Handel’s Messiah , but with a libretto that draws on the King James Bible, the Gnostic Gospels, Martin Luther, medieval mystery plays, and Latin American poetry in an incorrigibly contemporary way. Lincoln Center opened its festival with two sold-out performances at the B.A.M. Howard Gilman Opera House, a multimedia production involving Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Master Chorus, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, three soloists, a trio of countertenors and a film-all put together by Mr. Adams’ longtime collaborator, Peter Sellars. Having admired the Nonesuch recording of the original production, conducted by Kent Nagano, I went prepared to be stunned by the live performance.

Mr. Salonen, who conducted from the pit unseen, never seems to elicit anything but fully committed performances, and on this occasion I could only marvel at the luminous sincerity of Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in their rhapsodic Marian anthems, the stentorian articulateness of Willard White’s Almighty, and the otherworldly sweetness of the countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards. Thanks to Mr. Sellars, however, the finely detailed score was only intermittently absorbing. At his direction, the chorus-a superb vocal ensemble-moved about the stage in somnambulistic groupings of the Martha Graham Lite variety. And the film, which attempted to link the story of the Nativity to the arrival of a young Hispanic couple’s first child (the birth was celebrated on the Santa Monica beach), proved a major distraction. It played continuously above the singers, adding a visual aid that was as banal as it was unnecessary. Mr. Sellars’ quirky gilding of lilies has become increasingly facile of late, and the next time El Niño comes around, I hope he does his old friend Mr. Adams a favor by letting the work’s considerable riches shine forth on their own.