In 1980, John Adams was an emerging 33-year-old composer living in a San Francisco garret who had written a handful of promising solo piano and chamber pieces when he got his first major commission from the San Francisco Symphony. “Harmonium” proved the unexpected and spectacular forerunner of what would become his continued pioneering orchestral and operatic work.
Not quite 200 years earlier in the summer of 1791, Mozart was a 35-year-old-composer living in a Vienna garret who needed money when he jumped at a generous commission for a requiem Mass from a wealthy count (who intended to pass the work off as his own tribute to his dead wife). Mozart didn’t live to compete the Mass, which contains his final scribbled notes.
Thursday night, Gustavo Dudamel, who at 36 is the most accomplished musician of his generation, built an absorbing program around those two great choral pieces for his final Hollywood Bowl program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this summer. And in so doing he raised the confounding question of musical maturity and chronological age.
Physics tells us that what we call time isn’t real but mere perception, leaving a contentious philosophical, psychological, physiological and historical conundrum. We experience 21st century life as ever speeding up, but was life actually lived faster in the 18th century, a time of far fewer distractions than now and lifespans much shorter?
It is inconceivable to think that Mozart, who died at half the age Adams is today, could have continued to turn out numerous masterpieces every year for many more decades, all the while continuing to grow in artistic maturity. He would have reached superhuman levels suitable only for science fiction. In fact, his officially numbered 626 works represent a saturated artistic development, from inexperience to a profundity Dudamel will explore when he returns to begin the L.A. Phil fall season with two programs of works from Mozart’s final year.
Dudamel’s terrific Bowl performance of “Harmonium” with the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale was one of trust. Adams is the first to admit that he was learning his orchestral craft here and wrote vocal lines that are not entirely singer-friendly. But the originality of sound and the depth of content are mature beyond his years. The three sections of a half-hour score that is a hybrid choral symphony penetrate aspects of love and death through texts by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”).
The audacious grandiosity of Adams’ writing, which runs from the somber quiet of the middle movements’ meditation on mortality to the thrilling, Minimalist mass acceleration into “Wild Nights,” is what caught the attention of the first listeners to “Harmonium.” This was something strikingly new. From the opening repetition on “No,” Adams revealed a considered originality for accentuating poetic text.
Adams described that opening, which swells to a swell climax, as “a vector pointing heavenward” — and that is what happened in a special way at the Bowl. The Master Chorale was aggressively amplified, with the voices seeming to fill the space in a manner never before attempted (although experimented with a bit at Dudamel’s concert two nights earlier with the women’s voices at the end of Holst’s “The Planets”).
The sense of acoustic space was the kind of thing you experience with the latest $5,000 (and soon $50,000!) headphones, where it becomes difficult to distinguish where your brain ends and the world begins. Only at the Bowl that reality was the real deal. At the other extreme, the sound system was unusually effective at bringing out the details in the orchestration, such as Adams’ audacious application of instrument color.
Something of that same approach was then applied to the beginning of Mozart’s Requiem, making it at first flush sound inappropriately Adams-like. Subtle basset horns (early, low-range clarinets) had a synthesizer-like quality, and the chorus came out steely.
But the problematic opening gradually transformed into what I found to be absorbing effectiveness. Some of this had to do with Dudamel’s performance, which emphasized drama. That meant an especially powerful evocation of the “Dies Irae” and an almost jazz-like craftiness from David Rejano’s trombone solo in his “Tuba Mirum” duet with bass soloist John Relyea.
Where Dudamel connected the Requiem with “Harmonium” was through his emphasis on articulation in both orchestra and chorus, while allowing operatic liberties for the adroit soloists vocal quartet (soprano Miah Persson, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and tenor David Portillo were the others). And where the whole issue of artistic maturity became particularly notable was in the second half of the Requiem, which was finished by others based on Mozart’s sketches.
It becomes hard to distinguish what is and isn’t Mozart after the point in the “Lacrimosa” where the music expresses the shocking actuality of tears and where Mozart, himself in tears, could no longer go on. (He died the next day.) Dudamel’s compensation was, if anything, to increase the expressive intensity in an effort to reduce the nagging sense that a heavenward vector has imperceptibly reversed direction.
But Dudamel had to ultimately acknowledge that the most satisfying way to continue Mozart’s vector is to follow Adams’ lead by shooting new vectors. Dudamel, thus, did not, as he tends to do with spiritually intense works, stand still for a full minute or more of silence at the end. This Requiem was over when it was over. But the heavens did this night, as they are not normally expected to do at the Bowl, shake.