Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nixon in China posted on BBC3 for the Next Week

Anyone who does not take the opportunity to hear this piece, in whatever format, is missing out. At this point, John Adams may be the single greatest composer America has ever produced, and this is his most famous work (albeit not necessarily his greatest). Neither Copland nor Gershwin nor Ives ever produced so many great works over so long a period. It is all too fashionable to rag on John Adams, particularly in Europe, for writing music that people love. Whether or not his detractors realize it, the music of John Adams (to say nothing of Glass and Reich at their best) presents a far greater intellectual challenge than nearly anything by Boulez or Stockhausen. The European avant-garde produced some masterful composers - Ligeti and Berio to name the first that come to mind. But the insularity and dogmatism of the Darmstadt School created a breeding ground for frauds. The Darmstadt aesthetic bears greater responsibility than any other event in music's recent history for the current state of classical music - which, in case you haven't noticed, is a cultural backwater.

In any event, Nixon in China is having its second moment in the sun. Twenty years ago, it was labeled a cartoon opera. Fortunately, we now understand that it's a very serious work and a very serious meditation on history, power and the 20th century. It's an opera fundamentally about the clash between the two dominant world-views of the twentieth century: deregulated economies vs. centrally planned, democratic government vs. authoritarian. The opera's creators are wise enough to neither take a side nor exonerate either world-view for the flaws of their systems. Furthermore, Adams creates a score that is a marvel. The 'minimalism' is a simple schematic over which he can lay all sorts of different sounds that have primal meanings for us all - sometimes sounding of the chants of Tibetan Monks, sometimes like Glenn Miller. Like all the greatest composers, John Adams knows precisely how to orient the ear through the most complex harmonies, rhythms and polyphony (and make no mistake, it's a VERY complex score). And on top of all that, he may be the greatest living orchestrator (at least the greatest who's not from Finland). So I firmly believe that Nixon in China is a piece that everyone should give a fair shake, lest history leave them as far behind as it left Mao and Nixon. It's a piece that explains us to ourselves better than we could if we didn't have it.

Or you can just watch the world premiere production here...

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