Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 1 of 5)

(J. Robert Oppenheimer, alone with the bomb, recites the poem he was said to be obsessed with during it's creation. Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne.)

(Two notes:
1. It's a personal list. Only 1 and 2 are ranked. I make no claims to have exhaustively heard anywhere near all the new classical music to make any proper judgement. At this point in history, I think only a paid critic can do that. If anybody reading has suggestions for music to hear, I'm all ears.
2. In music school we're always taught about the terrible dangers of talking about music as though it means something extra-musical. Point taken, but the irrelevance of classical music to so many people bespeaks the dangers of NOT talking about music as though it means anything extra-musical.)

1. Doctor Atomic by John Adams. (2005, San Francisco)

(The Countdown. Yes, the staging is hilariously awful, but it'll get a better staging before long. Even so, the power of the music is inescapable.)

It's the decade of John Adams. We were just privileged to be there. His achievements in this decade number a Christmas oratorio to rival Handel's Messiah, the classical music statement on 9/11, a tribute to Charles Ives that in some ways improves on the original, the first great concerto for electric violin, a companion opera to The Magic Flute, and the most entertaining autobiography by a composer since Berlioz.

But above all this, and above all other music this decade, must stand Doctor Atomic - Adams's opera about Robert Oppenheimer in the leadup to the initial atomic bomb test.
Adams has always been a devoutly political composer of leftist conviction, but I defy anyone - liberal or conservative - to name a work of art in any genre that speaks so clearly to the fears of people from every creed, background and class during the post-9/11 era. The libretto (text) is pared down to transcripts of primary documents and poetry quotations (Oppenheimer was a scarily erudite man). This is the definition of music that shows rather than tells. Through the power of pure music, we feel as though all the debates of the Bush years are carried out in sound alone. As much as any artist in any genre, Adams got to the heart of what it meant to be an American in our era.

(Red Alert)

2. La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov (2000, Stuttgart)

This was the piece that made me realize I could never leave music. If Adams showed us our present through the recent past, then Osvaldo Golijov showed us our future through the distant past. People who tell you why Golijov - and particularly this piece of his - is bad are legion. But in listing the reasons why, all they managed to articulate was exactly why this piece - and its composer - is incredible. Here is an Argentinian-Jewish classical composer living in Boston who set the Gospel According to St. Mark to music utilizing a veritable encyclopedia of Latin American popular music traditions. This piece is everything classical music is not supposed to be: vibrant, sexy, partially improvised, and stylistically diverse.

(The Pascal Lamb)

It articulates the Gospel as though Christ were a martyred liberation theologist at home on the poorest streets of Santiago. It embraces every part of the music that Jesus would have heard on those streets - from the Tango to the Samba to the Habanera to the Rumba to Bossa Nova. It displays in sound what City of God does in images - the plight and the spirit of the world's most rapidly evolving continent with pinpoint accuracy, and in the process becomes the greatest and most transformative work of choral music since Stravinsky's Les Noces.

(Lua Descolorida...this could work for unaccompanied chorus too....though Golijov may have made his own choral version already. He certainly has a voice/piano version. Good man.)

Golijov was supposed to write an opera based on the Deadalus legend with a libretto by Anthony Minghella. But Minghella died a year into the project and Golijov has yet to find something equivalent to stimulate his imagination (and yes by the way, it's "English Patient" Anthony Minghella). His time off is well spent. He is now the house composer for Francis Ford Coppola as Coppola plots his gradual comeback into film. No doubt, there are few better teachers of what it means to have artistic vision. So mark my words, Golijov will be back and just as great as he ever was.

(The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov's incredible tribute to Jewish music from 1998. In this part, the ensemble intones the High Holiday prayer 'Oonetanah Tokef' as it has never been.)

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