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The Inspiratiion of Air

New York
David Geffen Auditorium, Lincoln Center
06/08/2023 -  & June 9, 10, 2023
Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, opus 33a
Tōru Takemitsu: I Hear the Water Dreaming
John Luther Adams: Become Desert

Robert Langevin (Flute)
New York Philharmonic Chorus, Malcolm J. Merriweather (Conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (Conductor)

J.L. Adams/R. Langevin

My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming - sometimes even frightening - landscape, and invites you to get lost in it.”
John Luther Adams

I always want to write erotic music... Not only about the love between men and women, but in a much more universal sense–about the sensuality of the mechanism of the universe... about life.”
Tōru Takemitsu


It was of course a coincidence, but Jaap van Zweden is offering a concert about the air this week. Air and water (Benjamin Britten), Aborigine symbols of water (Tōru Takemitsu) and finally the emptiness of anything except air in John Luther Adams’ Become Desert. Not a word about the haze, or the smog or the dangerous breathing areas. But orchestral paintings which prove that–whether dirty or clean–“The Air, the Air, is everywhere.”

The realism of air started with Benjamin Britten’s huge, dynamic picture of the sea, from Peter Grimes. These notes were like musical paintings by Joseph Turner. The waves, the fog, the seabirds, the mystery. Knowing the opera’s tragedy helps. But Mr. van Zweden gave the NY Phil room, with its sounds of nature and the rumbles of the ocean to create an effect of nature in the raw.

Tōru Takemitsu is something of an acquired taste. His spiritual mentor was Debussy, his aura is Delius, and his music breathes an inner control, a pointillistic imagery which can never be caught on first hearing. Takemitsu’s exegesis on I Hear the Water Dreaming was not Byzantine, but it was complex. The image, he wrote, comes from an Australian painting called Water Dreaming, which apparently involves dreaming, a multitude of unexplained symbolism, and of course the Aboriginal avatars of memory.

How does a composer make something orchestral from an enigmatic vision? The way Takemitsu always created. Music which is slow, which rarely uses all the orchestral forces, and which breathes.

Breathes! Breathing air, breathing dreams, breathing to bring audiences into a Takemitsu hypnotic mood, neither soporific or narcoleptic but inside of the composer’s exhale‑inside mind.

Last night, this mood was enhanced by the Phil’s longtime First Chair flute Robert Langevin. His job was not to produce a flute concerto, or the mystic flute work of the late (alas) Kaija Saariaho. Rather, it was the Debussy-like flute comments on the orchestra, using Japanese breathing techniques, exquisite tones, and Mr. Langevin’s lyric genius.

One must admit that the 11 minutes of I Hear the Water Dreaming seemed far longer, but the audience obviously fell into the Takemitsu mood. Even if they eluded that mood, they could have seen this as another sheerly beautiful creation from a most singular composer.

The second‑half long work, 40 minutes worth, was John Luther Adams’ Become Desert. I have two contradictory feelings.

First, Mr. Adams is one of the most important composers of our time. Unlike any other writer (perhaps George Rochberg excepted), he has embraced the whole feeling of earth. Yes, his peripatetic biography, of course. But equally his handling of orchestral space and textures, of surprising choral music, of the most deft and fantastic tributes to earth, water, birds (his One Thousand Birds at a semi-outdoor venue in Caramoor was one of my great experience.) He is also one of the most prolific composers, though not a single piece neglects reverence for...well, for existence. For organic and inorganic. For earth and earth’s corollaries.

Become Desert, commissioned partly by the NY Phil, is a celebration partly of his present home, New Mexico, but other deserts “become” in North and South America. Written for one huge orchestra, and four chamber groups around the balconies, it has all the great John Luther Adams trademarks. Multiples of rhythms, consorts fading in and out with another, a moderation of volume, yet a mesmeric painting of colors.

It could be termed partly a stasis. But the movement is constant, the changes in space project a kind of physics “string‑theory” of vibrations and near imperceptible volition.

Deftness doesn’t begin to describe Mr. Adams’ accomplishment. And yet...And yet...well, I’ve lived in and traveled through a half‑dozen contiguous deserts, from Morocco to Libya to Egypt. And the one fiercely sensation in my ears I had during and after, was...silence.

Pure silence. Not a Gargantuan orchestra, not kaleidoscopes of color. Oh, Mr. Adams did get one thing right. The New  York Philharmonic Chorus came in under and around the orchestra, intoning one word, the Spanish word for light. And when they entered, I recalled a true mirage (this in south Tunisia). The chorus was, in essence, an aural mirage. Quite wonderful.

Yet quite selfishly, I didn’t want Mr. Adams hallucinatory, dreamlike, orchestral metaphor for “desert.” In a way, John Cage’s 4’33” was desert. John Luther Adams is still a magnificent composer. But while listening, I wanted, like Walt Whitman, to “wander off and look with perfect silence at the stars.”

CODA: Finally saw Tàr. Or the first three‑quarters or a film twice the length of Mahler’s Third The purportedly impressive movie about a famous conductor who destroys her own life through unsavory liaisons, envies, pent‑up anger. The direction is visually spacious both in New York and Berlin, the cast is obviously intelligent, and of course Cate Blanchett is phenomenal. Though hardly original. Seventy years ago, Joan Crawford or Bette Davis could have faced the same problems. And in those terribly moral years, Mercedes McCambridge played a manly lesbian in Johnny Guitar.

C. Blanchett

For Concertonet readers–not ordinary movie viewers–Tàr is an essay in pseudo-cerebral absurdity.

First, how is conductor Tár going to achieve universal celebration? Aha! By recording Mahler’s Fifth. (Okay, the 327th recording, but never mind.)

The musical chatter involving “real people” is Gossip 101: I.e. Lully’s gangrene, “Jimmy” Levine’s problems, Furtwängler’s politics. Ho‑hum. And supposedly Tàr is a great pianist. Blah. She plays, at most, two notes on her piano before taking off for more quietly prurient adventures. Oh, she sings to Bach’s C Major Prelude from the “48”.

Add to this the orchestral rehearsals. I have attended a dozen, from Toscanini to Michael Tilson Thomas, and not once did a conductor give a speech. Ms. Blanchett seems to believe the dais is a church podium for long profound sermons.

The most preposterous scene of all is a Conducting Master Class in Juilliard. Here, a young non‑white would‑be conductor and his fellow classmates refuse to play Bach, because Bach was a “misogynist”, an “old white guy”, not fit for the young students. Whatever the merits, whatever Tàr’s sermon, the truth is that if any student in Juilliard refused to play Bach for any socio‑political reasons, he or she would be kicked out of Juilliard onto 66th Street.

Quicker than a hemidemisemiquaver!!

Harry Rolnick



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