(I am not sure how to attribute this. Its from YouTube)
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under music director Robert Spano, presented an opera-in-the-concert-hall performance of John Adams’ “A Flowering Tree.” The soloists were Jessica Rivera, soprano; Russell Thomas, tenor; and Eric Owens, Bass-baritone. The Atlanta Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Norman Mackenzie, also was featured. The performance was staged by James Alexander.
John Adams, along with Philip Glass, is one of my favorite modern composers. Both have their roots in the “Minimalist” style, a label that Adams does not particularly like. Minimalism derives some of its style from Indian ragas, as performed by masters like Ravi Shankar. As a brief review, here is a description of minimalism from Wikipedia: “Prominent features of the style include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.“ One of the earliest pieces I heard in this style was Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air,” which was a ground breaking work using amplified instruments. I find that the hypnotic nature of minimalist music to be relaxing, enabling me to become centered, focusing only the sound, and not my thoughts. For me, this musical style can be harsh and aggressive, especially when amplified, but it can also be lush and melodic. I heard the Vienna State Opera Orchestra play several of Philip Glass’ pieces recently, and it was nothing short of gorgeous.
As a result of my love of minimalism I was looking forward to Adams’ opera with great anticipation. The performance was beautifully staged, with a rear scrim upon which were projected shadow puppets and videos, reflecting the story. Particularly clever was the projection of the lead female Kumudha as she transformed into a tree. The story is based on a folk tale focusing on the redemptive power of love. A key feature of the narrative is Kumudha’s transformation, which goes terribly wrong as a result of the spiteful interference of another woman. Initially I was put off by the somewhat fantastical storyline only to reflect that I had really liked “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which I had seen the day before. I concluded that fantasy is, well, fantasy.
The singers were certainly competent and the chorus was up to its usually excellent standard. I found of the movements the chorus were assigned were distracting. They would turn their back to the audience, hold their scores in front of their faces, wiggle their fingers over their heads, and randomly turn around. I wasn’t sure how these movements aided the story, but I will leave the interpretation to those less concrete than me. But as always, I found the chorus to be too large and too loud. It was also unidiomatic. Check out the YouTube piece above. It very different than the ASO performance, but sounds much more like Indian- influenced music and singing. It is as if it is not even the same music.
Adams apparently likes to have the human voice amplified. I found that the voices overwhelmed the often delicate and diaphanous orchestrations in this performance. Adams music was more often piano than forte so protecting the small orchestral voice seemed desirable. But that was not the case here. It may have been Symphony Hall’s problematic acoustics (I was in the Loge), an overly aggressive sound engineer, or Spano’s intent. But, I missed hearing most of the orchestra. I also felt that the western operatic voice did not suit the story. Composing to reflect the delicacy of Indian singing (and its music in general) would seem to have been a better choice, but then Adams didn’t seek my consultation while he was writing. Also, I didn’t hear any minimalist homage to Indian ragas. They could have been drowned out by the singing, but I don’t think so. That would also have been a nice touch. Take notes Mr. Adams. For me, it was like hearing a soundtrack that accompanies a film- you know it is there but it is never intrusive enough to actually register..
So for me, this finale to the season deserves high marks for the boldness of the programming of this work, but lower marks for the music itself, as well as the balance problems that I heard. Sometimes an event can fall short of our expectations simply because of expectations were too high. This may have been at work here for me. I can say that, for example, I had high expectation for the performance of the Brahms Double Concerto earlier in the season, but it also disappointed for the lack of agreement between the soloists with regard to the aggressiveness of the performance. But as they say, today’s expectation is tomorrow’s disappointment. Maybe I set myself up to not enjoying the Adams work simply because I hoped for so much.