Adams, Bruckner are tied together without strings

Unlikely programming makes sense to Polochick

Stage: Theater/Music/Dance

December 02, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I got to thinking what interesting bed partners these two works would make," says conductor Edward Polochick. That's putting it mildly.

The works in question, which he has programmed for Saturday's performance by the Concert Artists of Baltimore, provide a decidedly unusual juxtaposition. On one side, a richly textured, liturgical-minded piece by 19th century, late-romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. On the other, a richly textured, secular-minded piece by 20th - and 21st - century, postmodernist American composer John Adams.

The chance to hear either Bruckner's Mass in E minor or Adams' Grand Pianola Music would make the program well worth catching; the chance to hear both at a single sitting makes this one of the most enticing events of the season.

Despite differences of content, intent and style, these two compositions do have a strong connective point - both scores eliminate string instruments (which means, of course, that the program is titled "No Strings Attached").

Polochick cites another similarity, namely the way both Bruckner and Adams painstakingly achieve a remarkable "palette of colors."

As the Mass opens, for example, the voices' first syllables and chords gradually emerge, as if out of ether (or incense), to form an intense prayer. And throughout the Adams work, "you hear all these wonderful shifts of one color to another through the harmonies or instrumentation," Polochick says.

For centuries, composers - devout, far-from-devout and even non-Catholic - have set sections of the Latin Mass to music, intended for use during an actual religious service or for a concert (or both).

Bruckner, very much in the devout category, poured some of his most affecting ideas into three Masses. The one in E minor, written in 1866 for eight-part chorus and wind orchestra, beautifully reflects the message and mood of the sacred texts, nowhere more impressively than in the Credo section. Bruckner achieves an intense contrast of emotions between the solemnity and sorrow of the lines about the crucifixion and death and the outburst of joy at the mention of resurrection.

The score looks backward to the 16th-century liturgical style of Palestrina and forward to the expansive eloquence of Bruckner's own symphonies. "It's written in a very concise manner," says Polochick, who admits to being only a lukewarm fan of the composer.

"With this Mass, you get the essence of Bruckner in about a half-hour," he says. "You don't have to wait an hour and a half, like in his symphonies. And the sound of the Mass will help settle the ear into the flavor of music for winds and voices."

Only three amplified women's voices - "an updated version of the Andrews Sisters," Polochick says with a laugh - are heard in Adams' Grand Pianola Music. But they are, in their own way, as important to the three-movement score as the chorus is to Bruckner's Mass. They don't sing any words, just "ah" sounds, producing one more color in a fascinating palette that is centered around two grand pianos (a "pianola" was a brand of player piano introduced in the 1920s).

Filling in the rest of this sonic landscape are pairs of wind instruments, ranging "from the softness of flutes to the brashness of trombones," Polochick says, "and a battery of percussion - marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, drums. The pianos are used percussively, often in tandem with what the percussion is doing."

Grand Pianola Music didn't meet with universal acclaim after it was premiered in 1982 and started making the concert hall rounds; Adams was especially surprised at the amount of booing it received at a New York performance.

"I meant it neither as a joke nor a nose-thumbing at the tradition of earnest, serious contemporary music, nor as an intended provocation of any kind," Adams wrote later. "It was rather, in its loudest and most hyperventilated moments, a kind of Whitmanesque yawp, an exhilaration of good humor, certainly a parody and therefore ironic."

Minimalism-friendly listeners embrace the work for its striking originality and brilliant sonic effects, a combination that suggests Philip Glass on steroids, or maybe Steve Reich after a shot of laughing gas.

"I don't get into the works of Reich or Glass," Polochick says. "But there's something about Adams and his approach to minimalism that speaks to me. Maybe the average listener would say, `I don't hear any difference,' but I do. The first time I heard Grand Pianola Music, the only way I could describe it was a two-story-high accordion cascading down a hill."

The composer was inspired by a dream about driving on a highway and being approached by two speeding stretch limos that turned into "the world's longest Steinway pianos" as they passed him, generating "volleys of B-flat and E-flat major arpeggios."

Much of Grand Pianola Music is much subtler than the dream description might lead you to expect, especially the middle movement, which Adams describes as "a slow serene pasture with grazing tuba."

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