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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
On the Transmigration of Souls

Philip Smith, trumpet
New York Choral Artists (Joseph Flummerfelt, director)
Brooklyn Youth Chorus (Diane Berkun, director)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
Recorded at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC, 19-24 Sept 2002
NONESUCH 7559 79816-2 [25.03]

Adams' 9/11 commemorative piece is released, as a CD single (a Nonesuch speciality), to coincide with the third anniversary of the destruction of New York's twin towers. Its relevance is enhanced, as if that were necessary, by the appalling and bloody recent events in southern Russia. It is, in many ways, quintessential Adams, evoking again the artistically benevolent spirits of Charles Ives, Walt Whitman and other less local heroes (not for the first time, both Sibelius and Mahler), all bound by a common devotion to humanity and universality. Although John Adams originally emerged from the minimalist scene, I would suggest that he has, particularly in the last decade or so, transcended it completely. Much as I admire Glass, Reich and Riley, I cannot imagine any of them tackling this subject with the degree of success Adams has achieved (and with no resort to sensationalism). Perhaps he can now be forgiven Klinghoffer by those who (rightly?) found his treatment of that subject rather too even-handed.

On the Transmigration of Souls opens with a roll call of missing persons. If this sounds mawkish, well it is anything but. The spoken names, with a subdued musical and choral backdrop, are truly moving and haunting, a trumpet clearly based on Ives' Unanswered Question adding to the poignancy. This is maintained, as an opening out into a more sustained choral/vocal section. Then intermittent percussion relays a litany of the missing/dead and their idiosyncratic identifying features (apparently the vast majority of the text derives from "missing person posters and memorials posted in the vicinity of the ruins of the World Trade Center"). We then encounter a fairly short-lived but powerful crescendo, just under half way into the piece; the haunting litany is soon resumed. Remarkably, the word ‘sentimental’ is just not one that even needs consideration here. The second, greater climax around the sixteenth minute, based on the intense, fraught, angry(?) repeated refrain "I know just where he is" leads to one of Adams' most genuinely Sibelian moments. This is a primeval but beauteous surge of brass and strings, before the chorus reasserts itself, only to battle again with the timpani. Eventually we are returned to the uneasy quietism of the piece's beginnings, with more recited names reminding us that 9/11 was very much a multinational tragedy despite its obvious and indelible association with NYC and the wider USA.

As I complete this review, I am listening to a melancholic, traditional Irish (but US recorded) slow air - An Buachaillin Ban/The Little Fair-Haired Boy - hoping, probably naively, that my young son Joel, a little fair-haired boy himself, does not have to grow up surrounded by repeated 9/11s, Beslans etc. However, this is not music for children, just a "still, small" but potent voice, in mourning for the innocent victims of a barbaric nihilism. From the first Shaker Loops/Light Over Water recording on New Albion, many years ago, to the present, John Adams, in his music and his wider worldview (see his recent comments on Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) has continued to display an uncommon integrity. His sense of proportion is sadly lacking in those who carry out and attempt to justify the type of actions that caused this piece to be written.

An absolutely essential disc.

Neil Horner



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