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Songs of Exile

11/01/1998 -  
John Adams : Scenes and Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, Century Rolls
Emanuael Ax (piano), Sanford Sylvan (baritone), Jeremy White (bass)
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, John Adams (conductor)

The Death of Klinghoffer has been surrounded by controversy and has not been staged since the first performances in Belgium in 1991 and then in the United States. To an outsider, the controversy seems to be based on the opera's observant even-handedness between the Palestinians and the Jewish people in the background events to the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. Alice Goodman's libretto states the point of view of each without privileging either, and John Adams' music give the tragic situation of both sides emotional power.

In the extracts performed in tonight's concert, this was illustrated powerfully and movingly in the opening choruses of the exiled Palestians, mourning their lost homes in language derived from Isaiah, and of the exiled Jews, yearning for Israel in the language of the Song of Songs, but in a western urban context. Only the psychopath Palestinian terrorist 'Rambo' attracted no sympathy, precisely because he is irrational and uses crude distortions of history to justify his violence. The implicit message that injustice and instability can drive people mad seems to be part of the opera's tragic vision.

The London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra were superb under Adams' direction, delivering both the underlying simple rhythms and harmonies of the music and the expressive melodies, perfectly fitted to the words. Jeremy White, in the small role of the terrorist 'Rambo', looked incongruously Rabbinical with a big Assyrian beard, but his singing was heavy and sinister, if slightly unfocussed. Sandford Sylvan sang Klinghoffer's music and the Bird aria with extreme clarity and a great sense of the language and drama.

Perhaps the recent fraught developments in the Middle East peace process have highlighted the absence of clear-cut good and bad guys, and the presence of a certain amount of good will and pragmatism on both sides. At any rate, tonight's fine performance was very warmly received. John Adams in a pre-concert talk suggested that, as Klinghoffer clearly wasn't going to get another American staging, it might be staged in the UK. Tonight's audience would agree, though a full concert or oratorio staging might be as effective.

The second part of the concert was far more playful, but still quite moving. It consisted of Adams' recent piano concerto, Century Rolls, performed by Emanuel Ax, for whom Adams wrote it. The first movement in particular evokes the music rolls of the title, imitating the mechanical production of music on a pianola, and also the way piano music is produced within the musical tradition. The second movement is a freer, lyrical set of studies, always rigorous in their sense of form but also full of warmth. The third movement, "Hail Bop", returns to the mechanical sound to some extent, but with a sense of excitement and urgency (presumably associated with the punningly eponymous comet) deriving from its dance form. Ax and Adams were both clearly enjoying themselves with this one.

H.E. Elsom



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