Many people would rather watch the world's most famous crocodile wrestler than hear its most famous composer. But given that a stingray killed croc-hunter Steve Irwin last year, it might be time to consider catching Philip Glass' opera Appomattox, which premieres at San Francisco Opera in October. The music of an equally famous modern composer, Berkeley resident John Adams, also features prominently in Bay Area concert halls in the coming months. Adams' Son of Chamber Symphony receives its world premiere at Stanford in November, allowing audiences to compare his genius with that of Glass.
Glass is better known than any other living classical composer, with the exception of Star Wars mastermind John Williams. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has written that Glass "is arguably the most famous such composer in the world." Yet Adams' music, according to American Symphony Orchestra League statistics, is performed far more than Glass' in the concert hall. It has also achieved greater professional recognition in the form of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, and the cash-laden Grawemeyer and Nemmers accolades. Glass has received Grammy and Academy Award nominations, as well as other prizes, mainly for his contributions to film music.
Both composers have contributed immeasurably to the American musical scene, and it's no accident that the two are having works performed in the Bay Area this fall. Both are celebrating significant birthdays this year (Glass is turning 70, Adams 60). Furthermore, the Bay Area spawned institutions — specifically UC Berkeley and Mills College in Oakland — where most of the influential founders of the "minimalist" school of composition (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich) cut their teeth in the mid-1960s. Glass in New York, and later Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory, evolved their own distinctive styles inspired by this foundation.
In the stürm-und-drang-infused world of opera, the idea of creating a new work whose plot revolves around a polite discussion between two historical figures would seem to be a non-starter. Focusing on the meeting between Generals Grant and Lee that concluded the Civil War, the subject of Glass' Appomattox seems tame in comparison to Adams' fiery Manhattan Project opera, Doctor Atomic, which received its world premiere at SF Opera in 2005. Yet Appomattox, the 22nd of Glass' operas and the first to premiere in San Francisco, is worthy of dramatic treatment despite its seemingly passive subject.
Librettist Christopher Hampton, who won a Tony for his book for the musical Sunset Boulevard and an Oscar for the Dangerous Liaisons screenplay, crafts plenty of diversion from the generals' historic meeting itself. He interrupts the conference with flash-forward scenes progressively closer to our own time, and includes events that take place in the week leading up to the surrender. Act 1, for instance, features Lincoln, Grant, and their wives in the President's floating headquarters, Mrs. Grant's reflections on the hard years of her husband's pre-war life, and refugees fleeing Richmond "amid terror and chaos." Act 2 includes a scene from the 1965 Selma riots and the systematic demolition of the surrender site by souvenir hunters following the generals' departure. Director Robert Woodruff highlights the relationship between history and the present by juxtaposing characters in period costumes with generic modern metallic floors and gangplanks designed by Riccardo Hernandez.
Farther down the peninsula, Glass and Adams make appearances on the Stanford Lively Arts fall roster. Adams will unveil his new Son of Chamber Symphony — a work that, if it is anything like the original Chamber Symphony, is sure to surprise the ears with brash tonal juxtapositions. The composer was inspired to write the original in 1992 through a combination of studying Arnold Schoenberg's atonal scores and overhearing music from the Looney Tunes cartoons that his son was watching in an adjoining room. The work has since been dubbed "vibrantly raucous" and "one of the great works of the late 20th century." If Adams' sequel succeeds again with critics, the unusual title of his latest symphonic work may inspire other composers to drop conventional numberings in favor of family trees. ("Second Cousin Twice Removed of Piano Concerto," anyone?)
Not to be upstaged by Glass' Appomattox, Stanford presents its own opera event with Jon Else's documentary film Wonders Are Many. The film explores Adams' and director Peter Sellars' behind-the-scenes efforts to capture, through the medium of opera, the pain and triumph of Robert Oppenheimer and his associates in exploding the first nuclear device at Alamogordo.
The organization is also staging the West Coast premiere of Glass' Book of Longing, a multimedia theater piece based on Leonard Cohen's book of the same title featuring erotic poetry and arresting drawings. Glass will perform in person on the keyboard, along with a vocal ensemble and musicians drawn from indie rock, classical, and new music circles.
Adams' and Glass' minimalist and post-minimalist styles — and their audiences — have come a long way since their early days in California and New York. "Both of these composers, when they started, were writing for small audiences in rather experimental settings," says California State University East Bay music professor Jeffrey Miller. "Now, of course, for many years, they've been writing for large symphony orchestras and opera houses. Their style, which was regarded as incredibly radical and off-putting to many who were fans of traditional classical music, is now very well established and part of the mainstream. In fact, I'd say it is the mainstream."
Whether it's Grant storming the War Memorial Opera House, Looney Tunes animating Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, or Leonard Cohen's words taking on new musical associations, you can be sure that Glass and Adams will be providing plenty of scales to wrestle with this fall, crocodile or no.