After the Holiday Pops concerts end this weekend, the PSO will go on break, but they'll be back January 16 and 17, when the PSO's composer of the year, John Adams, will conduct some of his own works: selections from his opera Nixon in China as well as a symphony based on music from another opera, Doctor Atomic, and his musical commemoration of 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls.
Pittsburgh is lucky to have Adams as its composer of the year, and as a young composer and orchestra management intern, I’m incredibly excited about Adams. He’s a great composer –- and not just great in the pantheon of American composers — whose works will stay in the repertory and push music forward into new territory.
I’ll discuss what about Adams’ music is so special for music in future posts, but for now, I want to discuss his position in American music as I see it.
American composers have always struggled to develop an American sound that wasn't German or French –- how could we study them but not sound like them?
A few main trends came out: jazz (I’m not talking about the Gershwin and Bernstein stuff) and sort of the Copland sound. Copland's third symphony, which Leonard Slatkin conducted a few weeks ago with the PSO, and other works such as Appalachian Spring, are emblematic of America in their strength and clarity, but abstractly — you can't say why the music is American, it just is. There was another trend as well, with Charles Ives, who in many works used traditional hymns and American folk tunes as the basis for avant-garde compositions, and showed American composers they could be American and avant-garde.
But Copland’s tradition was undermined as he wrote works like Rodeo, which were his attempt to simply mimic American folk music. While Rodeo is wonderful, many inferior composers followed and imitated Copland, giving rise to a generic Americana similar to Copland’s hoe down music. So when you are a composer and want to be American, you start writing hoe downs, or you do actually go after the folk music of the country (as Jennifer Higdon did with bluegrass in her Concerto 4-3, which received its Pittsburgh premiere a few weeks ago). A lot of times, though, there’s an uneasiness between the folk music and classical elements (did you notice how little the orchestra played in Higdon’s piece? Most of the bluegrass came from Time for Three, not the orchestra) and the works simply fail.
But wait a darn minute, I'm no country bumpkin and I along with many others wouldn't consider my tastes represented by Americana! I'm no jazz aficionado either. I don’t have any folk music roots to get back to as Higdon, who’s from Tennessee, did.
Adams though has pushed forward a new identity that combines Copland, Ives, jazz, and all the melting pot of musical swirling in America. To me, a young composer, Adams' music says that you can be American and avant-garde. (The example of someone who's avant-garde but not American might be Elliott Carter.)
Also, Adams' music sounds as American as Copland's and is more up to date than Bernstein's 1950s West Side Story (I still enjoyed it when Slatkin conducted it a few weeks ago, but Bernstein's "Cool" wouldn't be today's "Cool").
Adams’ music is full of European elements, too. He didn't swear them off and misconstrue Copland's clarity and simplicity for naïveté and simple-mindedness as inferior composers did in creating the simple Americana sound.
I’m very familiar with several Adams works, including On the Transmigration of Souls, and I'll blog about it in detail soon. Adams is an important American composer, so catch this future icon conducting his own works while you can at Heinz Hall. And, if you're like me and want to express pride in being an American, come and listen to Adams' music.