- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

The Choral Arts Society of Washington wraps up its successful 2003-04 season tonight with an unusual finale that combines Verdi’s magnificent “Te Deum” with music of the American experience, including works by Charles Ives, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin as well as contemporary composer John Adams.

Music Director Norman Scribner will lead orchestra and chorus in the Verdi, while Mr. Adams himself is in town to conduct the program’s American stanza. Tony Award-winning soprano Audra McDonald is the featured soloist in tonight’s concert, which takes place at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center on the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

Later this month, the Choral Arts Society will travel to New York to present the American portion of this program at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fischer Hall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mr. Ives’ death. These performances will mark the first appearance of the society with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Most critics and musicologists consider John Adams’ 1981 composition “Harmonium,” written for orchestra and chorus, the composer’s “breakthrough” work. While regarded by many as another minimalist composer in the tradition of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Mr. Adams rejects such easy categorization, pointing out that he is much freer in adding music from other eras and philosophies to his compositional palette.

“I do think minimalism was a very important revolution,” he says, “a breath of fresh air in a really bad time when classical music had painted itself into a corner with things like the 12-tone row and ‘chance’ music.” According to Mr. Adams, “this created an enormous gulf between serious composers and serious listeners, and the listeners started drifting away.”

Aiming for greater accessibility, Mr. Adams initially found himself strongly influenced by the largely tonal yet modernist precepts of minimalism, “which used fundamental building blocks of the musical experience like pulse, tone and motion as a way to revitalize the musical experience.” Though he has been quoted as saying he’s “a minimalist bored with minimalism,” he denies having made that statement, making it clear that while he has embraced some of minimalism’s concepts, his compositional style is wholly his own.

Those unfamiliar with the composer’s work will find his “Harmonium” to be a different kind of classical experience, one some will compare to New Age compositions. Rather than employing a strict melodic line, “Harmonium” projects its music as successive waves of shimmering sound. To this complex background is added a difficult choral part sung to the poetry of English poet John Donne and American poet Emily Dickinson, including “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and her lesser-known “Wild Nights.”

In addition to his own work in these concerts, Mr. Adams will be conducting a suite of American songs that he has titled “Songs of Ragtime and Reminiscence.” The Gershwin and Berlin works will be familiar to most, but the songs of Charles Ives may not be. A flinty, Yale-educated New England Yankee who had a successful career in business, Mr. Ives was a true American iconoclast and evolved a modernist classical style all his own, including his use of recycled popular music and batteries of dissonance and tone clusters.

Mr. Adams has long been an admirer of this American original and has orchestrated some of Mr. Ives’ art songs, which will be sung by Miss McDonald. “Ives was informed by ragtime,” he says, “as well as sentimental Victorian songs, but he filtered all of this through his own whimsical notions.”

He also acknowledges Mr. Ives as a strong influence on his new composition, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” an elegy on the victims and events of September 11. Mr. Adams’ composition has been recorded with the New York Philharmonic and will be released on the Nonesuch label this September to commemorate the third anniversary of this American tragedy.

Already the composer of two controversial and very contemporary operas — “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer” — Mr. Adams is busy penning a new one, “Dr. Atomic.” “It involves the scientific and moral crises surrounding the invention of the first atomic bomb,” he says, and portrays scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer as a kind of “American Faust who shepherded this project to fruition and was then destroyed by Congress.”

Mr. Adams is baffled by the tendency of contemporary opera composers to recycle old literary material and avoid political controversy, noting that just a little more than a century ago, composers such as Verdi never shied away from dealing with the tough issues — which may have been part of why his operas were so immensely popular.

“We still have major issues today that have profoundly imprinted themselves on the American psyche,” he says. “America versus the terrorists, communism versus capitalism, science versus morality, WMDs — all really embody the basic moral and psychological themes of our lives and times.”

WHO: Choral Arts Society, conducted by John Adams and Norman Scribner with soprano Audra McDonald

WHAT: John Adams’ “Harmonium,” Verdi’s “Te Deum” and American ragtime songs

WHERE: Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College, 3001 N. Beauregard St., Alexandria

WHEN: Today at 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Tickets $25 to 50.

INFORMATION: Call 202/244-3669 or visit https://www.choral arts.org.

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