On the Transmigration of Souls was commissioned from John Adams by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to mark the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. Now, ten years on from that event, it features as the last of the RSNO's Ten out of 10 strand in the final concert of the season, just as Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 is receiving its premieres from the touring Kronos Quartet, in the very week that US forces killed Osama Bin Laden. Music is seldom so topical.
It should be remarked how unusual the commission was in terms of the normal timescale of orchestral programming, which typically thinks one, two, or even three years ahead. To conceive a work of this scale — twenty-five minutes' worth, featuring a large orchestra, double chorus and audio projection — when presumably the composer had no pre-existing ideas kicking around, is a considerable feat.
The result is a work of great weight and, in passages, raw power. Especially when the vast choral forces are in full voice against the surging orchestral roar in the climactic clauses, there is a real sense of inchoate pain. Elsewhere, the more intimate moments are more troublesome, because there is such a gulf between the simple language in which ordinary victims communicate in the midst of horror and its aftermath, and the ceremonial formality of the orchestral medium.
Adams wrote about his desire to invoke the communal awe and timelessness of the medieval cathedral. His large orchestra, including two tubas and a double-bass clarinet, also features a small group of strings and piano tuned a quarter-tone above standard. The result is a sophisticated melos, but not necessarily a corresponding formal design. The quarter-tone thing, for instance, was somewhat drowned, unlike in Saariaho's Orion (link below)—the most convincing of the Ten out of 10 works that I heard this season.
Maybe the want of overt design is in some way its own expression of resistance against the act commemorated, nevertheless there is a similar sense of deficit to that felt in Britten's War Requiem (link below), though Britten's choice of texts stitches things together in a way that Adams’ choices cannot. In fact this aspect of the work draws parallels with Magnus Lindberg's Graffiti, also heard earlier in the Ten out of 10 strand (link below). In a similar way, the listener is in a sense told rather than shown the composer's intention (an odd perception, admittedly, given the aural medium). Similarly, too, Adams uses no soloists, foregrounding the chorus—who were in magnificent voice.
Denève took the first movement of the Beethoven precipitously fast. Too fast; much too fast. There are perhaps two distinct approaches that might be taken—to aim for grandeur, or to aim for thrilling passion. Though the maestro might be forgiven for attempting to pull off both simultaneously, it was asking a great deal of the expanded string section to find enough precision to make the latter option work, while giving them no time to let the instruments — particularly the basses — fully speak, almost trivializing those huge striding figures and thereby suppressing the majesty. The second movement was similarly frenzied, the trio section rushed like a host ushering someone away from a boring guest.
It was only with the third movement that things settled down. With the more reflective pace it became apparent that the strings had been asked to adopt a minimum-vibrato style. I can't say for sure, but that was my impression; certainly there was a bare magnificence in some of the sonorities achieved here. The finale, too, though on the quick side, was convincingly shaped, with soloists and most emphatically the chorus bringing the symphony — and the season — to an intensely joyous and memorable conclusion.
Photo: John Adams
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