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Topic: John Adams
The New York Philharmonic's recording of John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls re-entered the Billboard classical chart this week at number six, a week after winning three Grammy Awards.
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John Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls on commission from the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center to commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and this live performance, conducted by Lorin Maazel in only his second appearance as the Philharmonic's newly anointed music director, was taped a year later at the opening of the orchestra's 2002 season. Adams steers clear of customary terms like "composition" when talking about Souls, labeling it instead a "memory space" that is intended for private reflection -- even if that experience is shared with other concertgoers. Fittingly, his work, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for music, follows no traditional mold, avoiding clear rhythm and melody in favor of an organic, slowly unfolding design. As the music begins, taped voices declaim the names of the dead in clipped, whispered utterances, intermingled with an insistent "missing." Sounds of city life hover in the background. A chorus sings angelic parallel chords. Gradually, the orchestra takes hold, at first with high strings and a doleful trumpet, while voices chant brief phrases -- such as "he was tall and extremely good looking" and "she had a voice like an angel" -- taken in part from the posters of the missing that sprang up across New York City in the days following 9/11. Tension builds with agitated string passages and heavy brass chords, reaching a high point as the chorus frenetically cries, "Light! Day! Sky!" The crisis over, voices once again coolly murmur victims' names and telling phrases of the day as the work draws to a haunting conclusion. It's no small task to express in music an event as powerful and freighted as that one, but Adams deserves full credit for creating a work of beauty that, in its essentially unsentimental and reserved way, speaks movingly to listeners. Stitched together in only two rehearsals, the Philharmonic's performance under Maazel could hardly be bettered. EJ Johnson