[NB this review discusses Fascism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault. The views expressed are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of New Classic LA]
A gentle undulation in the strings, a murmur of woodwind melodies, the suggestion of burbling water under a quiet, rural sunrise. So begins Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1919 tone poem that opened Friday night’s concert at Disney Hall and helped secure the composer’s fame. Under the baton of John Adams, whose “dramatic symphony” with solo violin Scheherazade.2 comprised the second half, the LA Philharmonic gradually blazed to majestic life as Respighi’s focus shifted from dawn to morning to high noon before ebbing back into the stillness of night. Perhaps because of the conductor, I found myself focusing less on Respighi’s sweeping dramatic gestures (though the low brass were truly electrifying at the Trevi fountain’s climax) than on the small repeated figures that make up much of the musical texture. The Fountains of Rome is not a minimalist piece by any stretch of the imagination, but under Adams’s baton, it felt like it could easily be rewritten as one.
Dispensing with the opening tranquility of Fountains, the next work on the program was the second of Respighi’s Roman pieces, The Pines of Rome (1923–4). Despite its reputation as a flashy, even trashy showstopper, the Phil found a remarkable depth of feeling, the ghastly collapse from the giddy Villa Borghese to the gaunt Catacombs opening a yawning chasm of grief and loss. Between Tom Hooten’s offstage trumpet and Burt Hara’s delicate-as-breath clarinet solo, the Janiculum offered a harrowing path to acceptance and resolution before the Appian Way returned to end the first half with brilliant splendor.
Adams made a point to refer to this ending as an act of aggression in his speech to the audience after intermission, as though to imply that The Pines of Rome is part of the world of male violence against women that Scheherazade.2 is supposedly pushing back against. If so, it would be the only specific instance he pointed to outside the Middle East, a choice with an uncomfortable tinge of Islamophobia to it. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Middle East is a feminist utopia, but listing Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the only specifically named places where men commit violence against women plays into a pernicious trope that pits a more “civilized” West against a more “barbaric” Islamic world, blaming a religion for the evils of patriarchy and ignoring the history of Western intervention and destruction of progressive regimes in the area. It was not the only regrettable moment in the talk — at one point Adams seemed to imply that rape can develop into a healthy, consensual sexual encounter, which is a notion that cannot be condemned strongly enough. I’m not sure if that was Adams’s intent — I sincerely hope it wasn’t — but that it was unclear was one of many things that offered reason to doubt Adams’s full understanding of the feminism he is claiming to espouse.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that his piece was less charged that his rhetoric. The first movement was a slalom of irregular plonks and quiet rumbles, with the solo violin carving out jagged, irregular lines above the fray. In continuing his evolution away from minimalism, Adams seems to be picking up the mantle of texturalists like Unsuk Chin, though her tapestries cohere more and gleam with greater transparency than Adams’s offering — fans of his Naïve and Sentimental Music will be familiar with this language, even if the accent is altered somewhat. Towards the end, the music coalesces into a violent convulsion, the first obviously continuous line in the work.
Soft, overlapping string chords started the second movement, projecting less the violence Adams described than the religious ecstasy of Bernini’s Theresa. Likewise, the movement’s end was less a warm and heartfelt intimacy than a wan and colorless exhaustion. The third movement picked up where the first left off, violent unisons for the full orchestra alternating with inert lines from the violinist and discordant interjections from smaller sections of the orchestra. These included everything from a happily burbling conference of bassoons and oboes to a xylophone–led percussion display that could have come from a less avian Messiaen. This quasi-programmatic depiction of a group of “bearded men” condemning Scheherazade to death (because apparently beards correlate with misogyny?) was certainly rousing at times, but even by the end, Josefowicz’s lines were too abstract and disjointed to convey much in the way of noble resistance to an unjust fate.
Returning to a looser sense of narrative constraint, the last movement was the strongest of the four by far. Even so, despite Josefowicz’s consummate playing and some deftly intriguing klangfarbenmelodie between the tuned gongs and the cimbalom, the music felt sluggish and bedraggled. The whole piece clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and it does not make good use of that time. There are many excellent moments scattered throughout the score — surprising timbres, spot-on chord changes, intricate rhythmic games — but they don’t add convincingly to a larger whole. In fact, they don’t really add at all. They merely happen, in sequence, continuing on with no clear goal or direction. The moments are fresh enough to keep the piece from being boring, but they don’t gel well enough to make it actually interesting.
Even though Adams seemed to be being rather tongue-in-cheek when he described “The Pines of the Appian Way” as being an act of aggression, I think he’s absolutely correct in this. In 1922, the year before Respighi began writing that piece, Benito Mussolini marched his army into the city of Rome to stage a Fascist coup d’état. In that historical context, it’s not hard to understand why Respighi’s militaristic celebration of imperial triumph was often co-opted as propaganda by the Fascist regime. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this triumphal conclusion — all doubts are swept aside in an unstoppable wave of cymbals and brass — and it’s only later, on reflection, that the chilling realization of how easy it is for music to sweep away such doubts casts the resolutely upbeat ending in a more sinister light. (It is comforting to imagine that we would be able to see through propaganda and remain unseduced by its charms, but a piece like The Pines of Rome should give us pause.)
Sadly, Adams misses this subtlety. His villains aren’t the heroes of their own story, they’re just villains. There is no equivalent, in Scheherazade.2, of beginning to be moved by a rousing speech only to pull back in horror when we realize its central argument; everything is marked clearly from beginning to end. In a piece ostensibly about a clever, wily figure who uses plot twists and cliffhangers to change her fate, there is precious little wit indeed. It’s not exactly a moralizing piece, but it does move with some of the same plodding predictability, motivated less by guile and cunning than a worn–out sense of dutiful obligation. Adams has done better in the past; let’s hope he does better yet again.