Saturday, February 16, 2013

A religious experience of John Adams and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson and John Adams in St. Louis on Friday.

I move among enthusiasts where it's not uncommon to describe an artistic encounter as a "religious experience," and I think what we mean with this superlative is that the artistic experience connected us to something much larger than ourselves that also profoundly engaged and included us.

I had a religious experience of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Friday morning.

To begin with, they were handing out free glazed donuts at the door. The glazed donut is one of my favorite foodstuffs, and the morning is the best time to experience this delicious food. The concert was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. My entrance was so close to show time I literally was picking donuts off the trays as the volunteers were carting the trays away.

I was the guest of the symphony out of respect to my journalism job as managing editor of The St. Louis American which is published by one of the symphony's staunchest supporters. They put me in the front row of a plush little box where I could spread out my program, notebook and books on the ledge in front of me. I have covered Major League Baseball from a press box at the old Shea Stadium in New York and this was a lot like that, hard as that might be for Cardinals fans to accept.

Then, just as I am getting settled in, John Adams sits down right behind me. I was in the hall to hear the St. Louis premiere of Adams' symphony City Noir. Though I know journalists and guest composers get a similar kind of deluxe treatment, and I knew Adams was in town, I did not expect him to appear amiably at my shoulder and actually strike up a conversation with me. America's greatest and most important living composer is suddenly chatting me up about urban renewal and beautiful old concert houses like Powell Hall and how symphony players in Cleveland banded together to save their old urban hall from the medicine ball.

When suddenly the symphony diplomat assigned to the guest composer appears to take him away again. The great man had been placed in the wrong seat. As if a ghost, as fast as he started up a genial conversation with me the great American composer John Adams was gone with a shy wave.

Then I started reading the program notes as David Robertson struck up the band. The symphony hires this expert writer Paul Schiavo to write their program notes, and they are far and away the best music writing published in St. Louis every year. Schiavo, as always, is schooling me. David opened with Aaron Copland's Our Town, and I was fascinated to know that Thornton Wilder had moved to Hollywood to adapt his great play for the screen and that Copland scored the film, then distilled his score into the 9 minute concert piece that was being exquisitely taken through its relatively sedate paces by the SLSO.

I was a guest of the symphony because of my role as a journalist, but I experience all art as a producing artist. My hobby, or personal career, is creatively directing Poetry Scores, an international arts organization based in St. Louis that translates poetry into other media. We set long poems to music as you would score a film, then shoot silent films to that score. This business about adapting a play to a movie, then scoring the movie and adapting the score into a concert suite, was right up my alley. I might add that Copland poetry-scored Emily Dickinson, and on our long wish list is to produce those Copland/Dickinson scores with Peter Henderson on piano.

The second piece was Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, the Age of Anxiety. Schiavo taught me that this symphony bascially is a poetry score, in our terms -- it is Bernstein's musical adaptation of a long W.H. Auden poem of the same name. Auden was one of the first poets I scored with our band Eleanor Roosevelt, embroidering Auden's lines "History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon" into the song "Time" that we finally released last year on Water Bread & Beer.

The guest soloist was Orli Shaham, the great concert pianist and beautiful wife of David Robertson. In her concert dress, she was heartrendingly beautiful. She played the Bernstein with savage intensity.

After more donuts and much scribbling and texting during intermission, David and the band moved onto the main event, John Adams' City Noir. I've not heard the piece, and it's very jazzy and brassy. One drummer swings on a trap set as the piece opens, and throughout there is all this urgent brass that sounds like nothing more than Charles Mingus fleshing out a big brass section on records like The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I'm loving it.

And I'm reading and thinking. Schiavo is telling me that Adams composed City Noir on commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and wrote the piece for and about L.A. Charles Mingus was an L.A. guy. It's also the native space of David Robertson (a Santa Monica boy). More important to me at that moment, and contributing to the religious experience, was the fact that Poetry Scores has just adopted Los Angeles as our second Sister City (Istanbul was the first). I've been thinking a lot about L.A., making ample use of Hollywood Recording Studio for our Confucius/Pound score, and working on permissions from the estate of a major L.A. poet.

In fact, I was reading one of this major L.A. poet's novels, Ham on Rye, as I sat in rapture at the symphony. Something good is going to come of all of this, I was thinking, something good is going to come of all of this.

Besides my boss, the person I was texting rapturously to was Stefene Russell. That night Poetry Scores was celebrating the publication of Stefene's poet sequence Inferna. She had commissioned a baker to translate her poem into an art cake that we planned to serve at Mad Art. She texted me when she was going through checkout with the art cake. Guess who was ahead of her in line? she asked.

I would have guessed John Adams, but that did not seem possible. So I just texted back "?".

"David Robertson and Orli Shaham" was the answer.


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