It’s been more than an hour since I got home from this year’s second big-band festival concert on Monday, and it seems I’m only just now managing to debark (mentally and emotionally) from the celestial “chariot” upon which a thrilled Sottile Theatre audience took an exhilarating ride through celestial musical realms courtesy of composer John Adams. This was the second time in the two seasons since Maestro John Kennedy was named the festival’s resident conductor that he’s been tapped to lead the glorious Spoleto Festival Orchestra in unforgettable evenings of (mostly) contemporary music — and, glory be, he has managed to draw capacity crowds both times.

How blessed we are to have John Kennedy — arguably America’s most distinguished new music guru — among us here at Spoleto. After hosting his musical “birthday party” for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring last week, I found myself wishing that somehow, somebody could figure out a way to digitize this amazing artist’s encyclopedic knowledge and musical memory, and make it downloadable. As I’ve learned in my many years of Spoleto attendance, there’s no better guide than Kennedy to the music of now.    

In his many years at the helm of the festival’s Music in Time series, Kennedy has opened countless ears (and minds) to the incredibly fecund world of today’s music (and remember, there are more composers living and cranking out music today than have existed throughout all of human history). Not only that, but in recent festivals, he has delivered milestone performances of brilliant new operas by the likes of Pascal Dusapin (Faustus, The Last Night), Wolfgang Rihm (Proserpina), Kaija Saariaho (Emilie) and Philip Glass (Kepler). This year, it was Toshio Hosokawa’s wonderfully creepy Matsukaze.  

And now, his potent lessons that we need no longer be afraid to buy a ticket to a contemporary opera have been expanded to include today’s music in concert hall settings. Monday evening’s event was devoted to one of modern music’s most prevalent “isms” — namely, minimalism: defined as “process” music of often pointillistic textures that’s laid out in repetitive patterns with gradual alterations. As Kennedy explained to us from the podium after the very short opening work, the concert’s “theme” was to explore different harmonic and rhythmic approaches to the minimalist style.

Said short opening work (less than 2 minutes) was Maurice Ravel’s Frontispiece: originally written for two piano-five hands, the piece remained practically unknown until master conductor/composer Pierre Boulez saw something special in the mini-score and arranged it for large orchestra. Little did Ravel realize when he wrote the music in 1918 that it would someday be considered a precursor of sorts to minimalism: a musical movement that wouldn’t even have a name until nearly 50 years later. But minimalism’s unique, almost hypnotic effect was definitely in evidence here. The opening triplet-laced textures served as a sonic “bed” for the five ensuing independent voices — one for each of the original hands — which seemed to go their separate ways until they became enmeshed in a throbbing, polytonal swirl of sound, leading into massive, “eargasmic” string chords at the end. In a way, this was Ravel’s answer to the very different sorts of atonality resulting from the serial techniques of Schoenberg and his disciples of the Second Viennese School. For most of us in the stunned audience, it almost seemed to be over before it began, which is why Kennedy and company did us the distinct favor of repeating the piece following his remarks.

Another, distinctly different approach to minimalism came with the serene music of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks: his Credo, an instrumental setting of the central section of the classic Latin mass. He may well have written it as a sort of completion to his massive earlier setting of the mass, which lacks the Credo (or Creed: the Christian church’s central statement of faith). The work stands beautifully by itself, and demonstrates the very welcome re-emergence of traditional tonality and links to the music of the past: characteristics often discarded by many of the 20th century’s modernist composers, who, to many music lovers, seemed locked in a decades-long contest to see who could write the least accessible music. And the brain trust approved, even as listeners were stalking out of concert halls at intermission in droves. Thankfully, most of today’s finest composers, while they’ve learned some fascinating lessons from the modernists, have returned to the notion that music must speak pleasantly to its listeners (at least most of the time): it must appeal, not befuddle, intimidate or repel. That means, at least in part, a return of sorts to our musical roots.

Vask’s music, as the composer himself has told us, is intended to “provide food for the soul.” And, like his well-known “holy minimalist” contemporaries Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki, he does just that. But he accomplishes it with more traditional building blocks, like conventional tonality and lyrical structure that make his music rest easy on most ears. But he uses them in new ways, achieving total originality via methods that Kennedy described to us as “radical consonance.” The music unfolded in fairly simple, uncluttered and harmonized lines that mounted and blended in extended phrases that seemed to breathe warmth and comfort. Comfortably tonal or not, Vasks managed to build the music up to dual climaxes, in seemingly endless crescendos, with an almost ecstatic sense of rising spiritual tension and release, to truly trance-inducing effect. How I would love to hear this music again, but with the classic Credo text in front of me so that I might trace for myself his magical illumination of the words.

After halftime, Kennedy and company returned to offer a modern classic that I know from recordings, but have never heard in concert: American minimalist icon John Adams’ Harmonielehre, most appropriately translated here as “harmony lesson.” And it was an absolutely unforgettable listening experience: an exhilarating tumble through infinitely varied sonic dreamscapes that were largely inspired by Adams’ own actual dreams. Perhaps the seminal one was of Arnold Schoenberg (who himself wrote a treatise entitled Harmonielehre), whose dreamy specter helped to inspire Adams to compose music that he intended as a “…statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future.”

Other dreams were in evidence, too, as in the slam-bang chords that opened Part I (the first of three movements), which Adams claims were inspired by a dream in which he “…watched a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn Rocket.” From there, the music unfolded in shimmering, shifting textures ranging from the nearly inaudible to ponderous sonic tsunamis. And, in a different way than Vasks did above, he indeed built the music upon quasi-romantic, comfortably tonal harmonic elements. Part II, entitled “The Anfortas Wound,” is much more subdued, having been inspired by the Medieval legend of Anfortas, the knight of the Holy Grail who suffers wretchedly from a wound that will not heal. The music, aided by a fateful Mahlerian trumpet, seemed here to breathe a grim aura of gritty, near-hopeless suffering that won’t go away until the music inspired by Adams’ third dream finally dispels it.

Propelling Adams into the music of the spheres in Part III was his final dream, in which his baby daughter Emily (nicknamed “Quackie”) flits through cosmic realms perched upon the shoulder of Meister Eckhardt, the Medieval mystic and philosopher … hence the straightforward title, “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie.” And here is where the music seemed to pick me up and take me with it on a celestial journey, riding that musical chariot I spoke of above on a grand tour of the cosmos, as seen simultaneously through the imaginary eyes of a wonder-struck infant and a grizzled old sage. I dug out my very fine recording of the music the minute I got home and played it … but nothing could touch the thrill of hearing this musical alchemy in person. And it haunts me still.

I haven’t talked much here about our magnificent Spoleto Festival Orchestra, but suffice it to say that this amazing assembly of tomorrow’s orchestral stars were totally at home in this repertoire. They seemed to be “speaking” their new musical language with total comfort and utter conviction. Incidentally, they offered the program’s first works in American premiere performances.               

A closing thought: now, why can’t I have dreams like these? All the more reason to thank my lucky stars that John Adams found a way to make the fruit of his dreams my own — and that we have somebody like John Kennedy, who, at the helm of our magnificent SFO, can sweep us up and take us along on such an unforgettable ride as this.     

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