What causes a brilliantly successful opera composer like Mark Adamo to accept a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra that results in “Four Angels, Concerto for Harp and Orchestra”? The Dresser, who has experienced Adamo’s second opera Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess and is eager to hear Little Women, his first which will be presented this June in Washington, DC at Catholic University by Summer Opera Theatre Company, scratched her head when she got notice of the June 7, 2007 premiere. Apparently as the senior NSO harpist Dotian Levalier said in a talkback session after the concert, Adamo, who early in his career was a critic for The Washington Post, “understands the color of the harp” and it was Levalier who chose Adamo after Leonard Slatkin, NSO music director, asked her to recommend a composer for a composition featuring the harp. The back story is that in a conversation between Levalier and Slatkin regarding Levalier’s career, the only accomplishment Levalier’s career lacked was a concerto written specifically for her and the harp.
Did the Dresser, who is not really into the schmaltz of angels and balletic harp glissandos and pizzicatos, like “Four Angels”? No, she loved it.
ANGELS OF EVERY PERSUASION
Sandwiched between Joseph Haydn’s “La Reine” (Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major) written in 1785 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major (originally named by Mahler as “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts”) completed in 1888, “Four Angels” brought the Dresser to full attention. Haydn’s symphony contains much to be appreciated—the plaintive oboe in the opening Adagio, the folkloric Romance: Allegretto, the whimsical violins in the Menuetto—but his music tends to induce sleepy reverie in the conscious mind of the Dresser. Mahler’s symphony, which is large and powerful with its constant building toward its stormy conclusion, seemed a bit more complementary to the joyful landscape of “Four Angels.”
Adamo has named the four movements of his concerto after Metratron, known in the Kabbalah as the angel closest to G-d; Sraosha, the Zoroastrianian Angel of Divine Intuition; Mary, who as the mother of Christ became an angel at her death; and the archangel Michael who appears in the liturgies of Jews, Catholics and Moslems.
FLEET FEET AND PEDAL CRASHES
Using a postmodern approach, the Dresser will start inside “Four Angels” and move out. Movement 2 “Scherzo: Sraosha” stands head and shoulders above the other angel movements. Adamo pursues an oriental approach in this movement. The Dresser’s initial thoughts include the following reactions—the emphasis on percussion that includes slapping sounds, whirring, woodpecker-like thrumming, the striking of an off-key gong that sounds like a warped trashcan lid, rattling paper-like noise is reminiscent of what Tan Dun does in his recent opera The First Emperor and the scherzo dance form conjures up a 21st century Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with fleet feet able to move with the odd library of sounds. Everything about “Scherzo: Sraosha” is engaging and this is where the harp, using pedal crashes and tuning-key glissandos, becomes (to steal a metaphor used by Adamo in his May 23, 2007 article “On Babes and Angels” on newmusicbox.com) more than a voluptuous dumb blond just decorating what the orchestra delivers. In fact, as Adamo explained in the talkback session following the concert, the harp becomes a percussion instrument. The Dresser advices the serious music fan to hear Adamo's Lysistrata because percussion is also featured in this opera's orchestration.
The Dresser pauses here to say she was not familiar with the term pedal crash before hearing Adamo mention this in the talkback and so she Googled the Internet to see if she heard this term correctly and hoped she might find out more about the technique. What she found was the article “On Babes and Angels,” Adamo’s treatise on how he approached the issues of creating a harp concerto. Soon enough, the Dresser will ask the composer if pedal crash is a standard harp technique or something he put a name to after the harpist demonstrated to him all that the harp was capable of.
LYRICISM, FIREFLIES, AND WOODLAND FAIRIES
The most lyrically beautiful movement is the third which is entitled “Aria: Regina Coeli.” Somber violins make way for swells of heavenly triplets from the harp strings. Adamo said he wrote this movement for his mother (remember this is the Mary-as-angel movement) who came to a rehearsal this week to hear her son’s new composition. Levalier said she wasn’t entirely sure she liked the concerto until she heard this movement and the first time she played it, she wept.
The first movement, “Overture: Metatron,” had little windows of Aaron Copland-like sound and it was fluid and mysterious. The last movement, “Finale: Mik’hail,” opened with a rising line that stopped with a slap. Then came wooden knocks followed by horns in dialogue with the strings.
Overall, the Dresser heard the repeating theme of “Angels” and enjoyed the tidiness of its recurrence and how it cinched the four movements together. For the Dresser, she experienced fireflies and woodland fairies more than angels, particularly in the scherzo and finale movements. The Dresser didn’t believe that the harp had as much of the limelight as a concerto demands but she did not find that bothersome.
AFTER THE HARP, WHAT NEXT?
As Adamo and Levalier agreed, “Four Angels” is not a piece for a shy harpist. The Dresser can only add that writing a concerto for harp is not a good commission for a timid composer. With all the exotic percussion instruments and the Dresser will only name a few—crotales (a metal version of the castanet), gurio (a gourd with carved ribs that makes zipper-like sounds), vibraslap (also known as a Mandible makes a distinctive rattling sound), celesta (an instrument with a keyboard that is metal, think Tchaikovsky's “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”—Slatkin said the challenge was to blend all the orchestral colors. He said at first he thought the music was difficult to play, but it wasn’t the notes rather it was the blending of sound textures that required attention.
Photo Credit: Steve J. Sherman
Slatkin joked that when you go to heaven, St. Peter hands you a harp at the pearly gates, but when you go to hell, you get an accordion. Adamo, who is known for his quick repartee, rejoined that his next concerto will be for accordion.
To close, the Dresser offers this comic take on angels from poet Kathi Wolfe.
WHAT ANGELS DO ON THEIR DAY OFF
Adam and Eve.
with the hungry,
but discerning gods.
with the dead.
Dance to hip-hop.
Go to ballgames.
Boo the umpire.
Take a bus tour
of the stars’
homes in hell.
by Kathi Wolfe
published in Gargoyle No. 50.
Copyright © 2007 Kathi Wolfe