Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nixon in China

I’ve been listening to John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China, for the last two or three weeks – just playing it over and over while I’m doing other things, or sometimes listening more intently.
It doesn’t seem to have much of a story (I read the synopsis of it in the John Adams Reader) but the music is full of wonderful stretches: exceptionally exciting one moment, lyrical in another, exhausting (for the singers, I would think) in others, and full of inventiveness. The trademark Adams slicks are there: the pumping along of a number of instruments underneath the singers, the repetitions with slight alterations of instrumentation, the vital changes of rhythm, the coconuts hammering away (as they do in the Violin Concerto), and there are also some wonderful build-ups – so huge that I have to turn the CD player down to stop the room shaking. The orchestra must be huge, and it’s full of less-usual instruments. Apart from the coconuts, there’s a piano and saxophones and a bunch of percussion. Things that you wouldn’t usually get in an opera orchestra pit.
Some of the singers’ music is wonderfully lyrical, particularly the music for the soprano. Equally she has some patches that must be a nightmare to practise: great leaps up the scale several times in a row, ending with a coloratura run-off that goes even higher. The main singer, a tenor, has a patch early on when, full of excitement, he repeats certain words over and over, or chunks of a sentence, and they come in rhythmically in more and more complex ways. He has some very high stuff too. And then the chorus gets lots of interesting music.
I imagine it would be more effective on stage – apparently the Henry Kissinger role is more visible than audible, for instance – and of course there’d be all the dancing and visual display that’s missing in a recording. Still, for the moment, the audio version will do. Whatever else, it confirms that Adams is one of the great American composers of the last fifty years.
I’ve noticed the Radio NZ Concert has been playing more of his music recently. Maybe it’s his time. My wife has just bought a 4 gig flash drive for just under $50; not only does it backup the computer, it has an MP3 player on it, and will record. Perhaps I should put a copy of the opera on it, and hear it even better. Though no doubt you’d see me occasionally walking down the street suddenly pulling off the earphones when all the percussion got into full force!
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