Giancarlo Guerrero leads the Nashville Symphony in composer John Adams' minimalist masterpiece Harmony Lesson

Giancarlo Guerrero
Nashville Scene

By John Pitcher

John Adams dreams big. Well, to be absolutely precise, America's pre-eminent contemporary composer dreams of big, surreal and fantastical things. During one REM-filled reverie, he imagined a giant tanker ship rising above San Francisco Bay. His vision was so vivid he even saw brownish-orange oxide on the bottom of the hull.

This strange specter inspired the young John Adams to compose his first and arguably finest orchestral work, Harmonielehre. Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra will present this rarely heard modern masterpiece this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

The aptly named Harmonielehre, or "Harmony Lesson," is the centerpiece of a program devoted entirely to adventurous — and surprisingly listenable — 20th century works. Other pieces on the bill include Charles Ives' gloriously existential The Unanswered Question and Arnold Schoenberg's wrenching A Survivor From Warsaw.

Guerrero's penchant for contemporary music has been attracting a lot of attention. Gil French, concert editor of American Record Guide magazine, spends his days studying the programs of every orchestra in the country. "Yet again, I find Guerrero's programming to be the most interesting of any orchestra in the USA," he says. "And that includes Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony."

As it just so happens, Adams' Harmonielehre was premiered in San Francisco in 1985. Adams, then the San Francisco Symphony's composer-in-residence, received essentially a blank check from the orchestra's former music director Edo de Waart to write whatever he wanted. He returned with a three-part work of supreme daring and difficulty.

"Harmonielehre calls for a huge orchestra," says Guerrero, on the phone from Europe during a recent stint of guest conducting. "Adams wrote on the massive scale of a Mahler symphony, and the level of virtuosity he requires from the orchestra is absolutely breathtaking."

Harmonielehre boasts arguably the most arresting opening of any work since Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The first part begins with repeated E minor chords played with the force of hammer blows. This unrelentingly ferocious music apparently alludes to the enormous tanker struggling to free itself from earth's gravity. Soon the mood changes, and the orchestra begins to play a series of bright, shimmering notes. In an interview several years ago, Adams told me that these shifting, sparkling patterns were intended to create the effect of an entire orchestra being strummed.

The repetitive music that opens Harmonielehre is minimalistic. Adams, however, doesn't remain in this style for long. The first part climaxes with lyrical music of Brucknerian grandeur and intensity. This overtly romantic and anachronistic music serves as a metaphor for the rust that Adams saw on the hull of his chimerical Flying Dutchman.

Adams titled Harmonielehre's second part "The Anfortas Wound," a reference to the fallen guardian of the Holy Grail from Wagner's Parsifal. Here, Adams dispenses with minimalism altogether, writing deeply felt melody that comes across as a kind of purgative lament.

Another dream inspired Harmonielehre's final part, called "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie." Adams imagined that he saw Eckhardt, the medieval mystic, floating through space with a baby on his shoulder. Quackie, the nickname of Adams' daughter, is whispering the secrets of grace into Eckhardt's ear.

"As the father of two daughters, I can truly relate to what Adams is trying to do in the finale," says Guerrero. With the brilliant, quivering, minimalistic patterns in E-flat major that end the piece, Adams is attempting to leave the listener with a feeling of pure spiritual ecstasy.

Adams borrowed the title Harmonielehre from a harmony textbook written by Arnold Schoenberg, the father of modern atonal music. That prompted Guerrero to include Schoenberg's A Survivor From Warsaw on the same program. Arranged for orchestra, men's chorus and narrator, the piece lasts a mere eight minutes. Nevertheless, it packs a powerful emotional punch. The narrator reads a text written from the perspective of a German concentration camp survivor.

Actor George Takei will narrate this weekend. Takei is best known for his role as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek. What is less well known is that Takei was held in a West Coast internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. "Takei has a lot of feeling for the Schoenberg," says Guerrero. "He certainly deserves kudos for taking on this work." (Read D. Patrick Rodgers interview with Takei here.)

Guerrero is pairing the Schoenberg with one of the most amazing orchestra pieces ever written by an American, Ives' The Unanswered Question (1906). Lasting just seven minutes, The Unanswered Question is arranged for strings, solo trumpet and woodwinds. Throughout the piece, the trumpet repeats a short, pleading five-note melody that voices the eternal question, what is the meaning of life? The woodwinds answer with increasing dissonance and sarcasm as the piece progresses.

"We think of Schoenberg as having invented atonalism, but there's atonal writing in The Unanswered Question," says Guerrero. "Ives anticipated almost all of modern music."