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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

John Adams to conduct own 'Harmonielehre,' Beethoven's 'Emperor' with Seattle Symphony Orchestra

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

It's not often that Seattle Symphony audiences get to hear a major American composer conduct his own work. They'll have their chance next week when John Adams leads the orchestra through his 1985 piece, "Harmonielehre."

After opening with an explosive brass-and-percussion pulse, the three-movement work takes its listeners through lush, serpentine underworlds of sound, before emerging into a chiming, transcendent realm. While it has some glorious predecessors in Adams' work from the early 1980s ("Shaker Loops" for string orchestra; "Grand Pianola Music" for two pianos, winds, sopranos and percussion), "Harmonielehre" is widely regarded as Adams' first orchestral masterpiece. At the time it was written, it was also a powerful call for a return to music that made sense to both the soul and the ear.

"The title translates as 'Harmony Lesson' or 'Book of Harmony,' " Adams said in a recent phone interview. "I use it in multiple ways — first of all in the poetic sense of spiritual harmony, because there's a kind of narrative of descent into darkness in the middle of the work, and then a rise out of it."

Adams usually waits to title a piece until it's well under way or finished. But with "Harmonielehre" the title came first. It's taken from a 1911 book by composer Arnold Schoenberg, in which he illuminates the harmonic language of Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

"The irony," Adams notes, "is that the moment he published this book, he turned his back on tonal harmony. What I was doing by naming my piece this," he adds, "was making a very public statement of my embrace of tonal harmony. That may not seem a big thing in 2012, but in 1985 it was hugely controversial." In the 27 years since then, tonality has reaffirmed itself, Adams believes, as "the basic organizing principle of music."

The grand enchantments of "Harmonielehre" call to mind a passage in E.M. Forster's "Howards End," where Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is described as "the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man."

Asked if "sublime noise" is what he's after in his composition, Adams declares, "We are in the business of the sublime, and that keeps us going — because living in this American civilization, which is completely dominated by popular culture, one could easily despair, whether you're a poet or a serious novelist or a composer. ... Particularly as people grow older and get to be the age of your average concert audience, their need for the sublime becomes ever greater."

That's why audiences can't get enough of Beethoven, he adds.

As it happens, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), with Jonathan Biss as soloist, makes up the other half of the program.

Adams has been exchanging emails and recordings with the pianist: "I'm very curious, with the soloist, about what his take on it is."

The Symphony brings its own familiarity to the "Emperor." "Orchestral players barely need to look at their parts because they know it so well. What they're looking for is a moment of revelation," Adams says, "when you can feel in the room that the musicians have become involved."

Biss' appearance was already confirmed when Adams was invited by Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot to guest-conduct. The question: Which Adams piece would go best with the "Emperor"?

His recent jazz-inflected "City Noir" was briefly considered. But Adams didn't think it made a good match with the Beethoven. "Harmonielehre" seemed better suited.

This will be the Symphony's second pass at "Harmonielehre" (Robert Spano guest-conducted it in 2010). Adams' guess is that the score is probably stored somewhere on the players' mental "hard drives," and once they start to rehearse it, all the details will return. "Then you can shape a commanding performance of it," he says. "If it's the first time, they're hanging on for dear life."

This will also be Adams' second appearance with the Symphony, following one in 2004 where he led them through his "Naïve and Sentimental Music" ("a memorable quality experience," he says).

Things have changed recently in Adams' presentation of his work around the globe. Twenty-five years ago, he says, it was "always a campaign to introduce the music to the musicians."

Now, at 65, he finds himself working with players in their 20s — "and they know my music."

Michael Upchurch:

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