It may not be a dirty little secret, but classical music cognoscenti won't talk too much about the central role of popular music in shaping the more esteemed genre. While Beethoven and Mozart subtly integrated tunes loved by the masses with classically inspired rhythms and forms, their canonical works are still discussed as if they came out of an entirely different dimension. Yet what makes the progress of American classical music over the past few decades so different is the way that composers have so unabashedly accepted the idea that high art rarely exists without the low.
On Friday evening at Alexandria's Schlesinger Concert Hall, the doyen of contemporary American music, John Adams, led the Choral Arts Society of Washington in a concert that traced a direct link from his sleek style to the early-20th-century sounds of Tin Pan Alley. In a spectral display, the musicians fascinatingly showed how the big-breathed dances of the ragtime era were refracted through the singular musical imagination of Charles Ives and fed into Adams's special brand of minimalism.
The radiant singer Audra McDonald brought her sultry yet precise sound to a series of fun ragtime songs. She limned the texts with a strong tone and shapely phrases. McDonald's work in large Broadway theaters perhaps made it necessary for her to use a microphone to pierce through the orchestra. The amplification sometimes created distracting imbalances and odd distortions when she reached the high notes in such amusing songs as Hughie Cannon's "Bill Bailey" and George Gershwin's "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)."
McDonald's artistry emerged more vibrantly in three songs of Ives, which Adams skillfully orchestrated. As the strings and woodwinds sensitively colored the spare harmonies of Ives's "Serenity," one heard distinctly American popular songs layered within uniquely mannered, astringent chords. Ives's "Down East" and "At the River" were carefully crafted displays of musicianship.
It was thrilling to see Adams conduct his choral piece "Harmonium." With large-scale works like this one, completed in the early 1980s, Adams established his unique voice. His music combines the minutely evolving rhythmic patterns of minimalism with a greater lyricism that takes in popular melodies.
Whether in the swelling opening movement, where short repeated notes relentlessly develop to an enormous climax, or the more restrained second-movement setting of the lugubrious poetry of Emily Dickinson, Adams helped the Choral Arts Society render a superb account with excellent diction, tone and ensemble.
The close connection with Ives and ragtime came out most clearly in the final movement, a dashing setting of Dickinson's "Wild Nights! Wild Nights!" Here, the Choral Arts Society Orchestra brass and woodwinds intoned phrases highly reminiscent of the syncopated, ragtime-inspired rhythms of Tin Pan Alley. Adams conducted with intelligence and restraint, and, even in these passages that showed the strong popular influence on his music, he kept the orchestra together and in balance.
To open the concert, Choral Arts Society Musical Director Norman Scribner conducted a lovely account of Giuseppe Verdi's "Te Deum."
Adams and the chorus travel to New York this week to repeat the concert with the New York Philharmonic, which is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ives's death with a multi-week festival. If you missed the concert here, it might be worth a trip on the Metroliner.