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August 14, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival features enchanting John Adams opera

Please forgive the slow-down in blogging. I’ve zipped up to New York for the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America. Had to -- I’m still president of our little brood (for two more days). I’ll post whenever I can.

John AdamsThe association chose to gather in New York this year partly because it afforded an opportunity to check out the long-running Mostly Mozart Festival presented by Lincoln Center. There wasn’t a note of Mozart Thursday night, but his spirit was conjured up by the NY premiere of The Flowering Tree, an opera by John Adams inspired by The Magic Flute, though based on a 2,000-year old South Indian folk tale.

One of the cool things about Mostly Mozart is that the programming has opened up considerably over its four-decade-plus existence, offering diverse fare from a variety of genres and eras. The Adams work, given in the inviting Rose Theater in the Time-Warner building at Columbus Circle, provided a refreshing experience on several levels. The story, adapted by Adams and his frequent collaborator, director Peter Sellars, explores ...

myth and symbol, with a degree of conflict and self-discovery not unlike that in Mozart’s Flute, I suppose. 

Kumudha, a poor young woman, is transformed by a ritual ceremony into a flowering tree, and is thus able to produce blossoms that she and her sister can sell in the market; a prince sees this transformation and, fascinated, marries the woman; the prince’s jealous sister causes the Kumudha to be mutilated and caught in a state between human and arboreal form; the prince searches in despair for his wife, who, when found, is able to be her self again.

The story has been stripped down to its essentials, with just three solo singers – Kumudha, the prince and a storyteller. Three dancers interpret the action; a chorus is deeply involved as well.

Adams brings all of these forces into a musical symmetry that can be really quite stunning at times. From the first shimmering orchestral notes to the final burst of radiance, the score reveals layers of intricate nuance. The vocal writing has an often exquisite clarity that recalls Britten’s sensitivity to text. This may not rank ultimately as high as other Adams operas, but The Flowering Tree has a poetic, exotic beauty that is strongly appealing and involving.

It couldn’t get a more committed or expressive performance than the one here, conducted by the composer and featuring the sterling contributions of Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (Prince) and Sanford Sylvan (Storyteller). The demanding choral writing was delivered with terrific flair by the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela (Adams set the choral lines in Spanish, the rest in English – an oddly satisfying arrangement). And the Orchestra of St. Luke’s produced a rich array of tone colors. Sellars had the action unfolding tellingly on a bare platform, achieving especially compelling results in the way he had the Indonesian dancers subtly intertwined with the singers.

For two hours, the opera cast a remarkably strong spell.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:39 AM | | Comments (1)


Ahhh, John Coolidge Adams -- a composer with whom I've actually fallen _out_ of love, largely because much of what I hear from him lately sounds like Danny Elfman music. (Who's up for going to the circus, kids?)

(If anyone here saw the "Star Wars" episode of _Family Guy_ -- where John Williams met an unfortunate end at the hands of the Imperial Forces, only to be replaced by Elfman -- well, let's just say that I practically jumped up and cheered when Elfman "got it." ;^)

My test lately for a _lot_ of music is this: if I were tied to a chair with my eyes (or, in this case, ears) pried wide open à la "Clockwork Orange," then would what I see (or, again, hear) over and over again drive me absolutely insane? Unfortunately, the answer would be "I'm a unicorn!!!" for much of Adams' more... a-hem... "kinetic" orchestral-palette stuff.

The "Dr. Atomic" symphony, for example, sounds much like Shostakovich doing another film score. I used to _love_ Dmitri, too, but, for much the same reason as JCA, I just can't stand listening to certain things by him anymore. (This is obviously _my_ problem, not necessarily theirs...) The scoring for both guys _is_ often excellent -- just not my cup of tea.

"A Flowering Tree," however, is absolutely-freakin'-BEAUTIFUL, and it's the sort of thing that JCA _can_ and _should_ write more often. (Not that anyone could or should _tell_ him what to do -- I'm certainly not his muse...) My only complaint: I really _hate_ listening to the English language in any opera -- it's so damn _clunky_, and no one seems to be able to avoid this to my satisfaction. (Which is the primary reason I don't fawn over Britten's operas: I just _loathe_ the language in its "operatic" form. Again, my problem, not theirs...)

I think, too, that the relative difference in nature between "A Flowering Tree" and Adams' "big subject" operas -- Nixon, Klinghoffer, Oppenheimer -- makes for better listening: no weighty message is trying to pull itself through the music. The absence of this weight appears to lead toward better musical inspiration, IMHumO.

(And he's not trying to be so bloody "relevant," as if picking an "important" figure from recent times is the "thing to do" in current opera writing. Argh. No formula exists for linking "big" subjects with great music. Glass managed to do so _three_ times, though, early on...)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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