In 1996, I went to a San Francisco Symphony concert with a good friend. The program was generally typical of orchestra concerts around the world; an overture, a concerto, intermission, a symphony. In the details, however, lay the brilliance of Michael Tilson Thomas’ musicianship, attitude and salesmanship (a vtial talent for a music director): Rossini’s “Overture to Semiramide;” the Haydn Cello Concerto in D, played by Lynn Harrell; and John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Before the music began I overheard peope in the seats behind us talking about the music, expressing their unfamiliarity with Adams and wondering why the modern piece was placed after intermission, when surely many people would leave so they wouldn’t have to endure a piece younger than they were.
The music on the first half was despatched with verve and charm, and the curious couple behind us decided to stay for the whole show. They had no idea what they were in store for. This was a tremendous performance of a great piece of music, and from the very first, crushing E minor chord, the orchestra played with ferocious intensity. The ovation at the end was one of the most passionate I’ve witnessed, and Adams came out for four standing ovations. Leaving the hall, the same couple talked excitedly about how that was the greatest concert they had ever seen. I don’t doubt it.
Harmonielehre is a standard of the orchestral repertoire, and a masterpiece. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned it, premiered it and made the first recording, and excellent one that has not been equalled by performances led by Simon Rattle and David Robertson. It was surpassed that night, though, and that night has now been surpassed by a new release from the Symphony’s own label, live performances of the symphony and the fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” recorded in Davies Symphony Hall in December 2010 and September 2011.
The composition speaks for itself. It’s an important work, one that found a way to combine Minimalist process with Romantic resolution and express itself with immediate, and profound, emotional and intellectual power. It belongs explicitly inside the history of western classical music, with its bits of Mahler and Sibelius, but it’s not stodgy, and even though it’s a generation old it sounds new every time because it updates the past and shows a new way forward, but there’s nothing off-putting or forbidding about it, in the clichéd manner that had the patrons wary about what to expect. One of Adams’ finest qualities is that he wears his intellectual and learning lightly. It’s always in the context of his pieces, but he communicates that substance with such direct and sincere power that anyone and everyone can accept what they’re hearing without feeling alienated or patronized.
The playing and communication of MTT and the orchestra on this recording are of the highest level. I write this in Brooklyn, and from the East Coast perspective, with maybe one visit a year and a slow trickle of recordings on their own label, it’s easy to overlook that this continues to be the finest orchestra in the country. They play with the utmost refinement, flexibility and musicality, and bear the conductor’s personal stamp of color and power. They’ve already produced the finest Mahler cycle on record and a series of astonishingly accomplished CDs in tandem with their excellent Keeping Score series. In the SACD format, their recordings are the finest engineered classical discs I have ever heard; the sound has weight, resonance yet sacrifices no detail, and the placement of the audio field puts the listener at and slightly above the podium, and at volume that is exciting. The music-making on this disc is forceful, sweeping, joyful. Harmonielehre is deep, humane music, matched here by the visceral and empathic playing. This will be one of the finest releases of 2012. Adams’ composition is an essential part of any music library, and now this is the essential recording of it.