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Hail Bop - A Portrait of John ADAMS Tony Palmer’s film
Picture Format: NTSC 4:3
Regions 2, 3, 4 and 5
WARNER MUSIC VISION 50-51011-4857-2 [98:00]

 

 

In the same way that Ken Russell’s documentary on Elgar became a classic of the genre, Tony Palmer has made something of a modern day speciality of films on composers. At the Haunted End of the Day, his acclaimed portrait of William Walton and latterly his poignant filmic essay on Malcolm Arnold - all the more relevant as news of Arnold’s death has reached me as I write this review - have both been much lauded; and rightly so.

Sadly by the time of Palmer’s Arnold tribute the composer’s health had deteriorated to the point that any active involvement by the composer had been rendered all but impossible.

John Adams on the other hand comes across as a very willing and lucid participant in this ninety-eight minute “intimate portrait” filmed over the course of a twelve month period in the composer’s busy schedule. Much of the music was specifically recorded for the film by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Edo de Waart, a long time close collaborator of the composer. There are also numerous further contributions from the likes of Emanuel Ax, Michael Collins, Ernst Kovacic and the London Sinfonietta.

Although not strictly chronological, chapters are neatly indexed with the titles of the works they refer to. Hence it is easy to navigate around the film in a logical manner, particularly if familiar with the titles of many of Adams’ best known works.

Despite the wide-ranging sources of inspiration on which Adams draws, his childhood in a small town in New England has ensured that his soundworld is inextricably linked to the American landscape. Utilising natural American imagery alongside music on film is nothing new, as those with a liking for Philip Glass will know. But on a smaller scale Palmer manages to weave a striking web of images: glowing New England autumnal scenes, raging white water rapids and strange desert rock formations sit alongside scenes from 1960s new age rock festivals, the latter as much a part of Adams’ musical make-up as anything drawn from the “classical” world.

A good number of the musicians featured add comment along the way. These include Edo de Waart, whilst rehearsal sequences feature Kent Nagano with the Hallé Orchestra in preparation for the premiere of Slonimsky’s Earbox at the Bridgewater Hall. There’s also an entertaining one-to-one with Emanuel Ax during early preparations for the premiere of Century Rolls.

It is the operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer that benefit from the most telling spoken contributions. This is largely thanks to stage director Peter Sellers and librettist Alice Goodman, both of whom provide informed and adroit accounts of the controversy that surrounded the early performances of both works. In The Death of Klinghoffer and its confrontation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the form of Leon Klinghoffer’s involvement in a Palestinian hijacking of a pleasure cruise that finds resonances in the Middle Eastern issues that still dominate our news fifteen years on from the opera’s premiere. It was that 1991 premiere, set against the back drop of the Gulf War that leads Alice Goodman to comment “we had no idea how much trouble we were asking for”. Palmer captures the mood with footage of a packed press conference given in 1991 at which Sellers and the composer are seen being prodded by a large press contingent and defending the early performances in the context of the then prevailing situation in Iraq and Kuwait. It is difficult not to dwell on where Adams would turn if he were to return to the operatic genre in today’s ever more complex political climate.

Tony Palmer has once again produced a masterful film that is a model of its kind; an absorbing journey through the life and music of a composer whose work encapsulates American musical language like few others. If I have a gripe it is in the packaging of the DVD by Warner Music. A brief introduction on the rear of the box and no booklet is short thrift these days but don’t let it put you off. There is a great deal of enjoyment to be had for those with even the slightest interest in John Adams or American music generally.

Christopher Thomas

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