It was 1970, and the composer John Adams was tripping on LSD.
He was on the Marlboro Music Pageant in Vermont, and he wandered right into a rehearsal for Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” with the eminent pianist Rudolf Serkin sitting at a Steinway.
Adams noticed — or thought he noticed — the piano start to stretch right into a cartoonishly lengthy limousine. A equally fanciful imaginative and prescient later got here to him in a dream: He imagined driving down a California freeway as two Steinway grands sped previous him, emitting sounds within the heroic vein of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and “Hammerklavier” Sonata.
Each of those surreal episodes contributed to Adams’s eclectic and playful “Grand Pianola Music.” The piece, which premiered in 1982, had a turbulent early historical past, inspiring a uncommon refrain of boos and drawing criticism as a symptom of American consumerism. But many grew to adore it — sufficient to garner it a number of recordings, regular illustration on orchestra applications and its personal episode of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Sound/Stage streaming series, out Friday.
It was an acquired style even for its creator. “I feel I mentioned one thing wry in ‘Hallelujah Junction’ about desirous to take ‘Grand Pianola Music’ behind the barn and shoot it,” Adams mentioned in a current interview, referring to his 2008 memoir.
“I’m glad I didn’t shoot it,” he added with a chuckle.
If audiences had been sluggish to simply accept “Grand Pianola Music,” it might have been as a result of they didn’t know what to make of its puckish rebelliousness. The start, a Minimalist shimmer, was acquainted territory — albeit scored idiosyncratically for winds, brasses, percussion, two pianos and a trio of siren-like singers. However the finale was audaciously melodic and openhearted, in defiance of latest music’s persistent, thorny seriousness.
Parts foreshadowed Adams’s operas “Nixon in China” and “The Loss of life of Klinghoffer.” On the time, nonetheless, “Grand Pianola Music” appeared a wierd follow-up to the sensuous “Harmonium,” and never precisely a pure predecessor of the straight-faced and symphonically cosmic “Harmonielehre.”
“It begins like ‘Harmonium,’” Adams mentioned not too long ago. “Then I don’t know what occurred. As an alternative of one thing that folks would anticipate, this loopy factor occurred the place I acquired into B flat main, and the piano began banging away, and I realized one thing about myself: that I’ve a little bit of Mark Twain in me, I assume, as a result of I went with it.”
For essentially the most half, although, “Grand Pianola Music” isn’t so grand. The introduction swells to a quick glimpse of the finale, however then provides solution to serenity and a sluggish passage that recollects the spare great thing about earlier American composers like Aaron Copland. (In “Hallelujah Junction,” Adams describes the work as a part of a household of items that “evoke the American-ness of my background, typically with wry humor and typically with a reserved, light nostalgia.”)
This primary part takes up greater than two-thirds of the 30-minute working time, however Adams mentioned it’s the second and ultimate half, “On the Dominant Divide,” that folks have a tendency to recollect. It’s additionally what attracted essentially the most criticism.
It begins with the pianos shimmering once more, over flares of brasses that construct rigidity till a wave of arpeggios flows from the pianists. As that subsides, a overtly anthemic melody emerges, what Adams refers to in his e book as an “Ur-melodie” that sounds acquainted but unplaceable. It’s repeated, larger every time and finally bordering on tasteless, however held again from a tipping level by a fragile steadiness of irony and reaching a climax with the one textual content within the piece: “For I’ve seen the promised land.” In one thing of a coda, the ensemble recedes, then returns with its fullest sound but, propulsive like a airplane in takeoff — and ending simply because it takes flight.
“John wasn’t in any method disguising some very fantastic, huge, gestural, unabashed qualities which can be a part of his nature,” mentioned the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who has led works by Adams for many years, together with because the music director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1995 to 2020. “There’s a luxuriance within the sound, and I feel a form of ‘effectively, all of us secretly admit that we do love sure issues if we’re pressed into revealing it.’”
Adams performed the 1982 premiere on the San Francisco Symphony’s New and Uncommon Music competition. It was, he recalled, “a marginal disaster.” The singers carried out with an operatic sound, which made him understand that the piece required voices with the directness of wind devices. And other people he revered frowned on the rating.
“I actually thought,” Adams mentioned, “that I had made a mistake with this piece.”
Mark Swed, now the Los Angeles Occasions’s classical music critic, heard “Grand Pianola Music” quickly after, on the CalArts Modern Music Pageant — the place, he mentioned, its tunefulness took everybody aback, programmed amongst works by luminaries of the European avant-garde.
“Folks had been bewildered,” he added. “We had been nonetheless attempting to determine John out. What occurred? Did this man go over to the darkish facet or what?”
Swed mentioned that he was most likely “fairly pretentious about it again then,” however that he didn’t not take pleasure in it: “I simply didn’t know that it was OK to take pleasure in it.”
Then “Grand Pianola Music” traveled to the East Coast. The composer Jacob Druckman programmed it for the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons ’83 competition (subtitled “The New Romanticism?”) and insisted on conducting it.
The orchestra was under-rehearsed, Adams mentioned, and at any fee Druckman didn’t have loads of expertise as a conductor. Heard on an archival recording, the piece’s essential staccatos are imprecisely pronounced, and the finale is shockingly subdued.
Much more surprising, although, is the viewers’s response. Folks are likely to greet new music, even when they grumble about it on the best way out the live performance corridor, with at the very least well mannered applause. There was a few of that for “Grand Pianola Music” at Avery Fisher Corridor; however there was additionally a loud contingent of boos. They cool off shortly, however roar again the second Adams comes onstage to take a bow with the gamers.
“All it takes is 2 or three individuals,” Adams mentioned, “and all you hear are the boos.”
Ursula Oppens, one of many piano soloists, grabbed Adams’s hand through the bows and advised him: “Oh my God, they’re really booing. Don’t you simply adore it?”
Who was booing, and why, is a little bit of a thriller. Swed, who had traveled to New York for the Philharmonic live performance, suspected an anti-West Coast bias; the viewers’s response made him an instantaneous defender of the piece. The New York Occasions critic John Rockwell, who wrote in a review that the boos had been “a telling tribute” to the piece’s “vitality,” later guessed that the hostility was “a method for decided musical modernists to protest the creeping tide of New Romanticism.” Certainly, a publication by IRCAM, the avant-garde French electronic-music institute based by Pierre Boulez, in contrast “Grand Pianola Music” to the America of Disney and McDonald’s.
“We had been nonetheless fairly critically within the grip of very, very extreme modernism,” Adams mentioned. “There was this sense of gravity, that modern music was meant to be good for you in the best way that spinach is. I feel individuals thought I used to be waving my nostril on the complete idea of a up to date music competition.”
He wasn’t. “I consider composers I like — whether or not Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ or Beethoven’s scherzos, and even these bizarre moments in Mahler the place there’s humor,” Adams mentioned. “And I’ve by no means been afraid of that.”
Episodes of levity recur all through Adams’s music; he likened the mockingly effervescent British Dancing Girl aria in “The Loss of life of Klinghoffer” to the porter scene in “Macbeth.” From that perspective, the finale of “Grand Pianola Music” appears hardly outrageous or uncommon — or in any respect deserving of its preliminary reception.
Adams got here round on the piece, finally deciding it was “not so dangerous” and discovering that he loved conducting it. He led the efficiency captured on a 2015 recording with the San Francisco Symphony, a double invoice along with his “Absolute Jest.” It’s an interpretation of chic steadiness and articulation, the that means of its finale — its nod to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — elevated by a clearly offered reference to “the promised land.”
A brand new technology of conductors has additionally taken up “Grand Pianola Music,” reminiscent of Christian Reif, who offered it with members of the Worldwide Modern Ensemble on the Principally Mozart Pageant in 2018. When Reif advised Adams concerning the coming efficiency, the composer responded, “Oh, you’re doing that foolish piece of mine.”
“This piece has so many issues that I like about his music,” Reif mentioned in an interview. “The layering of sound, the colour palette of an enormous ensemble, the simplicity and delicacy, but additionally the explosions and the massive dramatic, heroic moments — he doesn’t draw back. It’s unabashed, and we reveled in it.”
Within the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Sound/Stage episode — which blends a not too long ago taped efficiency on the Hollywood Bowl with panorama video artwork by Deborah O’Grady, Adams’s spouse — the conductor Gustavo Dudamel calls the work “one in all my favorites.” His studying is spectacular if solely as a result of the piece’s challenges, its rigid rhythms and demand for absolute precision, are all of the harder with gamers confined to plexiglass cubicles.
“It’s an actual doc of the pandemic,” Adams mentioned.
Even so, Dudamel marshals a efficiency that radiates uplift and awe, sufficient to make a listener marvel what all of the negativity was about within the early 1980s. Wanting again, Swed mentioned, “it gave the impression of John was promoting out.”
“However in a bizarre method,” he added, “possibly what he was doing was really avant-garde.”