John Adams The Chairman Dances (1985)
Henri Dutilleux Concerto 'L'Arbre des songes' (1985)
Toru Takemitsu Dreamtime (1981)
George Benjamin Dream of the Song (2015)
With music that oscillates between dream and reality, the conductor Kazushi Ono has put together a programme with some well-known and less familiar works by contemporary composers.
In his compositions, the American composer John Adams (°1947) bridges tradition and the avant-garde. His The Chairman Dances, an infectious foxtrot with a dreamy middle movement, has become a classic of the orchestral repertoire. The music of the French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) in turn is reminiscent of impressionism. His violin concerto, titled Arbres de songes (The Tree of Dreams) is pure poetry. Dreamtime by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and the song cycle Dream of the Song by the British composer George Benjamin (1960) are just as visual and sensual.
With a father who played the clarinet, a mother wo sang with big bands and a grandfather whose dances offered a showcase for stars such as Duke Ellington, John Adams grew up surrounded by a medley of musical styles. During his studies at Harvard, yet another world would open up before him: his teacher Leon Kirchner, himself a former student of Schönberg, steered him toward avant-garde music. Adams had long sought a way to reconcile this forward-looking tonal language with his musical preference. Ultimately, he would find this in minimalism.
In his book The Rest is Noise, the music critic and author Alex Ross aptly summed up Adams’ style: “It is present-tense American romanticism, honouring the ghosts of Mahler en Sibelius, plugging into minimalist processes, swiping sounds from jazz and rock, browsing the files of postwar innovation.” A fine illustration of that is Adams’ The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra written in 1985. In it, he expands minimalism with an expressive palette of tempos, harmonies and dramatic effects. At the same time, he links up with the American folk tradition by incorporating a foxtrot and elements from jazz.
Adams saw the work as a ’warm-up’ for his opera Nixon in China: “At that time, 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony, but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon in China, I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece. So The Chairman Dances began as a ‘foxtrot’ for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch'ing [...]. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, ‘to come down, old man, and dance.’”
Henri Dutilleux liked to take his time composing. His meticulous way of working may have limited his output, but the quality and refinement of his work are phenomenal. The emotional charge and directness brought him worldwide admiration by both audiences and artists. This is clear from an article in Le Monde that appeared on the occasion of the long-awaited première of Dutilleux’ L’arbre des songes on 8 November 1985: "First announced for 1980, and then for 1983, the work was premièred on Tuesday evening (and broadcast live by France Musique) by Isaac Stern and the Orchestre National de France conducted by Lorin Maazel; but we won’t blame the composer, much applauded by the audience of a Théâtre des Champs Elysées filled to the rafters, that he took so long to finetune this radiantly beautiful work.”
Dutilleux wrote his violin concerto L’arbre des songes on commission by Radio France, to celebrate the 60th birthday of the violinist Isaac Stern. The composer had no interest in a virtuoso piece, nor did he care much for the traditional four-part structure. He found a solution to the latter problem by sticking together the four movements with three interludes each with its own distinctive character: “the first is pointillist the next one monodic, and the last begins with a certain stillness. In these parts, the soloist is not merely passive; at the end of the second interlude, the violinist runs parallel to the orchestra. This parallel role becomes very clear in the central episode of the work (the slow movement), which the oboe d'amore and the solo violin imitate each other in an interplay of mirror images.” The symmetric structure is typical of the entire work. The title alludes to both to the atmosphere and the structure and thematic development of the work: "All in all, the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of L'arbre des songes as the title of the piece."
Toru Takemitsu was essentially self-taught: he taught himself to compose by studying various styles ranging from jazz and film music, through Debussy and Schönberg, to the avant-garde music of John Cage. Partly thanks to Stravinsky – who praise his works highly in the press, he became the first Japanese composer with any renown in the West. Takemitsu sees himself as a bridge between Western and Japanese culture: “I would like to develop in two directions at once, as a Japanese in tradition and as a Westerner in innovation; mastering both musical styles simultaneously has become the core focus of my composition process. It is a tension that I don’t want to resolve – on the contrary, I would like the two styles to engage in the battle. I wish to achieve a sound that is just as intense as silence.”
Takemitsu’s music sounds poetic, filled with rich chords and misty melodies. But behind each of these lie hidden a very precisely constructed web of sound. Like his great model, Debussy, he attaches great importance to the sound colour and subtle effects, and he describes his own music as “an unfolding painting scroll”. For Dreamtime, a commission by the Nederlands Dans Theater, he drew inspiration from the mythology of the Australian aboriginals. It is a world in which dream and reality blend with each other: "Just as a dream for the vividness of detail, points to an unanticipated, unreal whole, so in this work short episodes hang suspended in seeming incoherency to form a musical whole. The subtle variations in rhythm and tempo changes serve to emphasize a feeling of floating in the music.”
The music of George Benjamin is also rooted partly in the colourful language of impressionism. “Enchanting”, “mysterious” and “sensual” are just a few of the descriptions that can be found in reviews of his song cycle Dream of the Song for orchestra, countertenor and women’s choir. The sung texts – Hebrew poems by Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Spanish poems by Federico García Lorca – can all be traced back to Arabic poetry from 9th-century Andalusia. With the Hebrew poems sung in English translation by the countertenor, while the women’s voices sing the original Spanish verses, Benjamin creates an unusual cohesion: “This is best expressed in the last movement, in which the soloist and the choir offer two simultaneous visions of the dawn, conceived a millennium apart.”