7 years ago

Volume 14 - Issue 4 - December 2008

Book Shelfby Pamela

Book Shelfby Pamela MarglesHallelujah Junction: Composing an AmericanLifeby John AdamsFarrar, Straus and Giroux352 pages, photos; .00 USIn his engaging autobiography, American composerJohn Adams describes coming on stage totake a bow after the premiere of Grand PianolaMusic. 'The blood rushedto my face at the sound ofthe booing, but the pianistUrsula Oppens, a veteranof countless contemporarymusic concerts,grabbed my hand andsaid, "Oh my god,they're actually booingdon't you just love it?'"Adams actually does not J·OHN ADAMSlove controversy, but hecontinues to cause far more than his fair share.He started out in the 60s and 70s as an experimentalcomposer immersed in the vibrantavant-garde culture of California, where hestill lives. "I too produced several pieces thatseriously pushed the boredom envelope," hewrites about works with titles like Schedules ofDischarging Capacitors, written for the Studebaker,an electronic instrument he built.His epiphany came when he realized thatwhat he really wanted to do was to create musicwhich had the order and sensuality of renaissancearchitecture combined with the pureexpressivity of German romanticism. "Atonality,"he writes, "rather than emiching the expressivepalette of the composer, in fact didjust the opposite."This memoir serves as an elegant apologiafor writing tonal music today. What stands outabout Adams' music, and in part explains hisbroad appeal, is its engagement with our times.His operas in particular deal with controversialtopics. The Death of Klinghojfer is about Palestinianterrorists capturing a cruise ship andmurdering one of the passengers; Nixon in Chinais about that historic visit; and, his most recent,Dr. Atomic is about the man who inventedthe first atomic bomb.At the same time, Adams provides an insightfulperspective on the music of our time.His text is enlivened by snapshots of peoplelike one-time mentor John Cage, the late mezzoLorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Adam's longtimecollaborator, the director Peter Sellers, whocreated the libretto for Dr. Atomic.Challenges: A Memoir of My Life in Operaby Sarah Caldwell with Rebecca MatlockWesleyan Press256 pages, photos; .95 USSarah Caldwell was unstoppable. She foundedand ran her own opera company, the OperaCompany of Boston, and was the first woman toconduct at the MetropolitanOpera. She tells howBeverley Sills, MarilynHorne, Joan Sutherland,Renata Tebaldi, and Canadiansoprano Lois Marshall(who rarely appearedin operas) all sangfor her, and how PlacidoDomingo made hisAmerican debut with her.Her descriptions of herpioneering trips, conducting concerts and producingoperas in the Soviet Union, China, thePhilippines and Venezuela, are fascinating.Caldwell was involved in every aspect of herproductions. In her vivid descriptions, shemakes each opera she produced sound special,especially when, like Prokofiev's War andPeace and Schoenberg's Moses undAaron, theywere the first American performances.Her naivete about human nature and internationalpolitics clearly allowed her, repeatedly,to attempt the impossible, at home and aroundthe world. Inevitably, she was constantlyplagued by financial problems. "I never experienceda day without terror that we would notbe able to meet our financial obligations," shewrites. In a rare moment of mellowness sheeven expresses regret for being so irritable thather own staff called her 'Miss Abrasive'. Yetshe managed to accomplish so much, especiallyat a time when women conductors were rare.In fact, she was once prevented from touringwith her own production because, as she wastold, audiences wouldn't accept a woman conductor."I couldn't believe they didn't let medo it because I was a woman! " she writes .Caldwell dictated her memoirs to RebeccaMatlock who (as Caldwell's friend and thewife of the former American Ambassador tothe Soviet Union) plays a role in them. Matlockcould therefore have wielded a strongerhand in shaping the disordered material, even ifCaldwell, who died in 2006, didn't want to tellher story chronologically.Anecdotes areleft unfinished, peoplecome and go, anddates are often missing,although there is ahelpful index. But toMatlock's credit, theauthentic voice of thegrandiose, drivenwoman in the coverphoto comes throughin this absorbingmemoir.Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand MilesBy Lang Lang with David RitzSpiegel & Grau256 pages, photos; .95From the time he was little, Chinese pianistLang Lang was forced by his father to practisethe piano more than eight hours a day. His fatherwould throw a shoeat him when he didn't dowell. When Lang Langwas nine, his fatherscreamed at him to killhimself, even telling himhow to do it, just becausehe had come home latefrom accompanying hisschool choir and missedan hour of practising.His father took himaway from his mother because she was 'a distraction'."I continued to cry for my motherthroughout my entire childhood, and, to be honest,long after that, " Lang Lang says in thismemoir. "I never stopped feeling the pain ofher absence." His father told him to put hislonging for his mother into his playing. Hemonitoredhis practising, sat in on his lessons, andeavesdropped on other student's lessons to reportback to him what he should be doing. "Myjob," the father would say, "is to make sure myson becomes the Number One piano player inthe world."Brutal though it may have been, it did thetrick. Lang Lang's success as a concert pianistis phenomenal . Yet this compelling account ofhis journey to achieve that success, writtenwith the zealous David Ritz, raises many troublingissues.When Lang Lang was fifteen, he movedwith his father to Philadelphia to study at Curtis.His teacher, Gary Graffrnan, convincedhim that playing the piano isn't about winningprizes, but about discovering the spirit of themusic.Yet at his Carnegie Hall debut Lang Langbrought his father on stage to play the erhu,because his father had always dreamt of playingCarnegie Hall. "Despite the truly terribletimes we had been through, the times I'd hatedand resented him, I would not have had a careerin music were it not for him," he writes.Will this courageous young man have to pay aprice for that career, especially when he is nolonger, so to speak, Number One?CORRECTION:A few words were inadvertently droppedfrom the final paragraph of my review of TheOxford Companion to the American Musicalby Thomas Hischak in the October issue ofWholeNote, thereby reversing the meaning.It should have read: Performers who don'thave their own entries are infrequently listedin the index, even if they actually are mentionedin the book, like Pitre, or like two otherperformers I tried to track down - PhyllisHyman, a great singer who died too young,and singer-lyricist June Carroll, who wascomposer Steve Reich's mother.WWW. THEWHOLENOTE.COMD EC EM BER 1 2008 - F EB RU ARY 7 2009

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