Interview with John Adams, part 6 – Cynthia Closkey

This is the final segment of my interview with John Adams, the PSO's Conductor of the Year. With these posts we're building up to two special concerts that he will be conducting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on January 16 and 17.

In this segment, John talks about Pittsburgh, Heinz Hall, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Q: I'm sure you've come to Pittsburgh a few times to work this season. Do you get to see any of the area when you're here?

JA: I've been driven to a few college campuses, so I've seen them. I'm very fond of the bridges. I think they're lovely. And [the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra] is a spectacularly wonderful orchestra.

This [Heinz Hall] is also one of the great halls in the country. I think the average person doesn't understand how essential it is to be in a good acoustical environment. It's the difference playing a five hundred dollar violin and a million dollar Stradivarius. The sound is so important.

Q: Can you describe what the difference is?

JA: It's a combination of clarity of sound and resonance, and also balance. We hear music along a bandwidth of frequencies. You have your bass waves, which are slower frequencies, and they're larger and longer acoustical waves. And then you go up through the scale of the audible spectrum. A great concert hall presents all of that spectrum in a beautifully balanced way. You don't get too boomy a bass or too shrill a top.

And then you need a sort of ideal reverberation time, so that when the music stops it doesn't stop dead. There's kind of an echo. But you don't want something that sounds like a train terminal or a bathroom.

Interestingly enough, two of the great concert halls in this country — Powell Hall in St. Louis and Heinz Hall — were originally movie theaters. And although the stages have been acoustically shaped, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You have to have a great hall to begin with.

And usually what you find it that when you've got a great hall, the orchestra will become great, because the orchestra knows … it hears itself and will rise to the challenge of the beautiful space. It's like somebody playing a Strad. They're motivated to play well.

Q: Do you notice differences in the audiences as well?

JA: Well, I've only been here once before. I came and conducted a program of twentieth century music, Stravinsky and my own music and Zappa, about fifteen years ago. And I … that experience was an expression of what's wrong about presenting contemporary music. Because the orchestra and the staff at the time didn't understand who I was, they didn't do anything to prepare the audience. So, much of the audience didn't come, and those that came were either fanatics or they were just people who were unprepared.

This time, the orchestra has a totally different philosophy about introducing a composer to a community. They're saturating the community for a year.

Q: We're having this interview, and you're doing podcasts —

JA: And I'm doing talks all over campuses, and I'll be doing two full concerts of my music … in effect three whole concerts, plus guest conductors are doing it.

So the audience will at least know who John Adams is. They may not like him, but they'll know who he is.

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