Posts Tagged ‘John Adams’

Reflecting on ‘Nixon’ and the arts at Harvard

November 17th, 2011 No comments

By the end of my freshman orientation, I had already grown familiar with the common laments of Harvard’s artistic community: Why are the arts so extracurricularized?  How can Harvard still not have a theater concentration? Why is there no respect for art as an academic discipline? The cries rise from d-hall production meetings and breakfasts in Annenberg after 8 a.m. postering and those couches outside of the bathrooms of the NCT (now Farkas Hall).

I knew no better than to join in the gripes and grumbles. Sure, I thought. If someone is going to pour time and effort into the arts anyway, why force them to choose a separate, more “academic” field of study?

This week, I changed my mind.

Drew Faust moderated a discussion on the Loeb Mainstage on Nov. 15 featuring a panel of three Harvard alums–the composer, librettist, and director of the acclaimed opera Nixon in China, which premiered in 1987 and was revived at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year.  As these artists reflected on their undergrad days, they pointed out the unique opportunities provided by Harvard’s quirky but vibrant extracurricular arts community.

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of "Nixon in China" (photo by Alastair Muir).

The panel featured Peter Sellars (director) and Alice Goodman (librettist) both class of ’80, as well as John Adams (composer) class of ’69. You may remember Harvard’s Collegium Musicum performing Adams’ haunting “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a 9/11 reflection, in their spring concert last semester in Sanders Theatre.

Adams happened to reference Sanders during the panel, but in quite a different context. He recalled an incident from his sophomore year, in which he was rushing to an orchestra rehearsal he was supposed to conduct when he slipped on ice outside of Sanders, scattering his briefcase full of sheet music. Even as he recalled the extreme anxiety of this situation, he asserted the immense value of Harvard’s system of quickly turning instrumentalists into conductors, actors into directors, and so on.  “If I hadn’t taken on all the responsibilities I did here,” he said,”I wouldn’t have had the career I did after.”

Alice Goodman agreed: “There was this sense that you could do anything — you were there to transform the art form.” She remembers staying up all night to talk about art with friends and ultimately leaving Harvard determined to make a profession of writing.

Peter Sellars spoke most adamantly in favor of Harvard’s system. “I came to Harvard because it had no theater department,” he said. “Theater departments are responsible for the death of theater in America.” He advocated for how Harvard teaches its students to approach art “anti-institutionally,” specifically referencing putting on shows in dining halls or in the tunnels under residential houses. “No one could grade what I was doing,” he said. “You have only your friends to catch you. That was really powerful. We need more of that.”

The degree of detail to which my daily life and the lives of my peers corresponds with the recollections of these alums is funny, poignant and inspiring, validating the craziness we endure in the name of our artistic pursuits. “You will never see the world as clearly as you see it now,” said Sellars. “Write letters to yourself for when you’re 30 and 40 and 50 about what mattered to you and how you saw things. In the future, you will find reasons to not be so committed.”

And so, persist in your rehearsals that run late into the night, and don’t underestimate the value of the IHOP conversations that follow.

How I spent my musical summer: Hollywood, Paris, Okinawa

June 1st, 2011 No comments

Chad Cannon '11 (right) in Paris with roommate Sunny Shen from the San Francisco Conservatory. (Photos courtesy Chad Cannon.)

OFA Artist Development Fellow and guest blogger Chad Cannon ’11 spent part of last summer working with a Hollywood composer and studying composition in Paris and Okinawa. He’s headed to The Juilliard School in the fall to continue his education. Below, Cannon shares his experiences of traveling abroad, meeting other artists and  exploring the world of music.

Following my experience working with composer Chris Bacon (whose latest project is Source Code), I departed the shores of America and headed to the great city of Paris, France. My arrival was less than grand as I tried to navigate the RER trains with two oversized suitcases – which contained the basics of my music composition studio – and a violin.

However, I soon found myself in the company of some of America’s greatest young composers at the Schola Cantorum, where the European American Musical Alliance summer program was being held. For four weeks, under the tutelage of the program’s director Philip Lasser and his associates, I experienced a great amount of musical growth.

The program is held in honor of the renowned 20th-century pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who instructed some of America’s most accomplished composers, including Aaron Copland (and Harvard’s own James Yannatos, among others). By focusing on the basics of composition – counterpoint, orchestration, keyboard harmony, solfege and ear training – the program helps composers establish a solid foundation upon which they can build their own styles. Read more…

“Memory space”: Where art allows us to grieve and glory

May 2nd, 2011 No comments

Harvard Arts Beat Commentary (Emily Vides, Communications and Administrative Associate, Office for the Arts at Harvard)

Federico Cortese conducts the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in 2009

On Friday, April 29, I attended the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, Holden Choirs, and Boston Children’s Chorus’ concert of John AdamsOn the Transmigration of Souls and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Sanders Theatre. There, I re-experienced the grief of our national tragedy that happened on September 11, 2001, but was then set free by the thrill and ecstasy of Beethoven’s 9th. I had never seen the full 9th and was unprepared for the sheer numbers: 250 singers and musicians crowded the stage (and the balcony), guided by conductors Andrew Clark and Federico Cortese. I was also unprepared for the journey through fear and sadness they took us on with Adams’ piece, but so glad that the evening ended in a place of joy and hope.

Adams’ piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and “attempts to create a ‘memory space’ for the construction of a new way of being, one that hopefully includes full and continuing life, but one that is irrevocably marked by the past” (according to the concert program). This is a hard piece — to listen to, to perform and to carry with you. Given the news of the death of Osama bin Laden yesterday at the hands of American forces, I am glad to have been at the concert to experience the pain and joy of the music.

John Adams PHOTO: Jacob Belcher

I cried when the choirs sang “we will miss you…we all miss you…we all love you.” It tore at my heart to hear the young adults on the stage, most of them who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12, but more likely 8 or 9, in 2001, singing the words that John Adams took from the missing-persons posters and memorials that sprang up around the vicinity of ground zero to the people who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers or who were still missing. This was the world the student musicians grew up in, and last night as I heard the chants of “USA! USA!” travel through the baseball crowd at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and again as I saw the cover of the Harvard Crimson this morning, I thought, “There has to be a better way to respond to this death than with jubilant cheer.” I understand it, the feeling of relief and yes, of excitement that people experienced last night and today at the news of bin Laden’s death. But…but…

…there is a better way: through art we can explore the sorrow and pain of senseless loss, of confusion and chaos, of pathos and remembrance, without the “I’m right, you’re wrong”-ness of politics and finality of military force. Catharsis can happen without giving into bloodlust, and bloodlust and the desire for revenge can be explored without compromising your soul. Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls is not fun, but it is necessary. It makes the tragedy of 9/11 personal and human and opens up a space to reflect, with the recorded city sounds that begin and end the piece — so much like the Vietnam War Memorial’s Wall of Names that reflects your own face back to you as you hear the sadness and chaos of the music.

And after that, the only thing left to do is to remember how great it is to be here, to be alive, on a Spring evening in the Sanders Theatre of Memorial Hall.

The opening lines of Beethovens’ 9th are:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! | Oh friends, not these tones!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere an stimmen, | Rather, let us raise our voices in more
und freudenvollere. | pleasing and more joyful sounds!
Freude! | Joy!

Beethoven speaks to us from the past and says, “It’s okay, you don’t have to be swallowed by grief, there is joy in life, and the dead would want you to feel joy.” The pace and almost maddening energy of Beethoven’s 9th were remarkable, with Maestro Cortese driving the HRO and Choirs on with his furious conducting. John Adams’ piece was still there in the room (as was John Adams, who came to Friday night’s performance), but the hole it opened up in all of us present was filled with the human joy that Beethoven gave us almost 200 years ago. The only possible answer to the questions that Adams’ piece makes you face are the words from Ode to Joy: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” All men are made brothers. If not, the terrorists truly do win, and we are scarcely better than they are. I wish everyone in America could have been at Sanders that night.

Andrew Clark on Adams’ 9/11 “memory space”

April 14th, 2011 No comments

Andrew Clark brings praising reviews as background to his new position as director of choral activities at Harvard. The Boston Globe calls his choir work “first rate,” Opera News describes it as “cohesive and exciting,” the Providence Journal writes of his “beautifully blended” results, and the Worcester Telegraph says his choral conducting achieves performances of “passion, conviction, adrenaline, coherence.” In the following e-interview, Clark shares insights on his choral work with On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams ’69, AM ’72, which will be performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra with the Holden Choirs and the Premier Choir of the Boston Children’s Chorus at 8 p.m. Friday April 29 and Saturday April 30, at Sanders Theatre, as part of ARTS FIRST. This Sunday, the Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler writes about 9/11 commemorative works, including a preview of Harvard’s forthcoming New England premiere performance of On the Transmigration of Souls.

John Adams ’69, AM ’72 has said that his desire in writing On the Transmigration of Souls was to achieve in musical terms the feeling one would have upon entering a majestic cathedral — an otherworldliness, an awareness of the presence of many souls: Although you might be with a group of people, or the cathedral itself is filled…you feel very much alone with your thoughts and find them focused in a most extraordinary and spiritual way. Would you share your thoughts on this work?

The most immediate and striking feature of the work, in my opinion, deals with the composer’s ability to completely redefine context and dimensionality from the start. Transmigration begins, as most concerts do, with the performers taking their places on stage, tuning and preparing for the start. As we finish this traditional ritual, the audience hears not music from the stage, but the sounds of the city on the pre-recorded soundtrack enveloped around them, followed by an almost Neo-Medieval effect from the orchestra and chorus — not unlike the two-part chant style known as organum. Within seconds, Adams has redefined our sense of place: Are we in a concert hall, on a street corner or in a cathedral? Do we focus on the specific names and phrases of the soundtrack or the accompanying wordless colors and sound world of the performers on stage? It immediately engages the audience, jarring us from our expectations and forcing us to confront something unfamiliar and three dimensional. This represents a form of “transmigration,” a communion between recorded sounds, live performers and the audience itself. Read more…

Maria Guinand: Spreading the word with her baton

April 6th, 2011 No comments
Maria Guinand, the award-winning Venezuelan choral conductor and university professor, is Harvard’s Learning from Performers guest artist at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in Paine Hall. She is also the inaugural conductor-in-residence of the Boston Children’s Chorus, a partner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She has been dean of the Jose Angel Lamas Music School and of the Conservatory of Music Simon Bolivar, the central academic program of the Foundation for Youth and Children Orchestras in Venezuela. She presently conducts two choirs, the Cantoria Alberto Grau and the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. As a leading interpreter of Latin American choral music of the 20th and 21st centuries, she has had choral conducting roles in the presentation of La Pasion Segun San Marcos (St. Mark’s Passion) by Osvald Golijov, Golijov’s Oceana, as well as John Adams‘ A Flowering Tree. Guinand, a graduate of Bristol University in England, is the recipient of the Helmuth Rilling Preis (2009), the Robert Edler Preis (2000), and the Kulturpreis of the InterNationes Foundation (1998).

Listen to Professor Guinand discuss her work, her collaborations and El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth education program much admired in the U.S.

Harvard and NEC: Conducting expressivity

December 10th, 2010 No comments

Aram Demirjian '08 conducts the NEC Lab Orchestra under the incisive eye of Hugh Wolff '75. Photo: Andrew Hurlbut

Harvard conductors are pioneering the orchestral conducting program at New England Conservatory. With the vision of Maestro Hugh Wolff, NEC’s Director of Orchestras, the orchestral conducting program at NEC has taken on new form and new life with a highly selective, two-year graduate curriculum that is polishing the artistic leadership and musical character of talented young conductor, Aram Demirjian (Harvard ’08, NEC MM ’11). Aram is in the first class of conductors with only one other student, Joshua Weilerstein.

Photo: Andrew Hurlbut

Along with course work in score reading, instrumentation, orchestration, and performance practice, seminars and private lessons, Aram’s conducting skills are being developed to the fullest and will be on display 8:30 p.m. Friday, December 10 (tonight) at NEC’s Brown Hall in a concert free and open to the public, featuring Beethoven’s Overture to Leonore No. 3, Op. 72, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (1870), and Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38, Spring. See Harvard’s own Aram Demirjian in action on the podium — with his focused expressivity achieved by economy of gesture that I remember even from his days conducting my chamber group in Music 93r in ’07-’08 — conducting the NEC Lab Orchestra in its culminating concert of the semester.

Continuing my series of conversations about music with Hugh Wolff, today’s post presents Maestro Wolff’s views about Harvard composers, John Adams ’69, MA ’72, and John Harbison ’60, who help to shape the future of music as composers, critics, and intellectual American voices.

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Hear Maestro Wolff’s insights into the music scene and orchestral concert audiences in Frankfurt, Germany compared to those in North America. Maestro Wolff propounds that John Adams has worldwide appeal, known to international audiences, and compares this to North American audiences’ reception of new music. Maestro Wolff shares his ethos of programming new music, earning the trust of your orchestra, and feeling that new music should be a part of the mainstream of what an orchestra does — completely integrated into the concert subscription series. Read more…