Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
From SFGate.com - Saturday, February 24, 2007
Like some fairy tale spring that never runs dry, the eloquence and freshness of Mozart's music continue to inspire composers two and a half centuries after his death.
The latest opus to draw on those strains is "A Flowering Tree," John Adams' new opera of love and redemption that gets its U.S. premiere beginning Thursday with the composer conducting the San Francisco Symphony.
The libretto, which Adams crafted with his longtime collaborator Peter Sellars, is based on a folktale from southern India. But the original impetus behind the work, Adams says, is "The Magic Flute," that miraculous blend of subtle craftsmanship and pop accessibility that Mozart wrote just months before he died.
"This was about three years ago, and Peter had been appointed to run this festival in Vienna based on the last year of Mozart's life," Adams told a press gathering last month.
"I remember we were standing around backstage at the Barbican Centre in London talking about this, and I just said, 'I want to do "The Magic Flute" -- let Kaija (Saariaho) do the Requiem.' It was a bunch of deeply irresponsible people, none of whom had their schedules with them, getting deeply involved with something without thinking."
Adams had less than a year to write the piece, and originally planned a terse 50-minute score. But by the time of last year's premiere, at the New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna (named for the Masons), the work had burgeoned into a full two-act opera.
The story, which is related with help from a narrator as well as Spanish-language choruses and Javanese dancers, tells of Kumudha, a poor, beautiful maiden who has the mystical ability to transform herself into a blossoming tree.
At first, she and her sister merely sell the flowers to help support their elderly mother, but soon a prince discovers her powers and successfully woos her. Further complications ensue, spurred on by the jealousy of the prince's sister, before the two lovers -- now sadder and wiser -- are finally reunited.
For Adams, the link to "The Magic Flute" lies both in the theme of "moral and spiritual transformation" and in the expressive directness that both pieces share.
"I remember a long time ago reading Charles Rosen's book 'The Classical Style,' " he said during a recent phone conversation, "and being very affected by the realization that 'Magic Flute' and some of Mozart's other very late music went in the direction of being popular music.
"And of course in my own work, I go in and out of embracing the vernacular. And coming out of the dark psychological turmoil of 'Doctor Atomic' " -- his 2005 opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the first atomic bomb -- "I felt the need to do something about hope and simplicity."
Adams has immersed himself in popular music before, most notably in his hard-to-classify 1995 music theater piece "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky." But the score of "A Flowering Tree," as heard in a recording of the Vienna premiere, nods less to the world of the pop song than to the kind of open, straightforward writing of Mozart's populist vein.
The rhythms are bright and ebullient, the harmonies are relatively free of complexity, and the melodic lines move with a sinuous clarity. Getting to that level of expressive transparency, Adams says, was a daunting task.
"I almost killed myself last summer getting this done. Writing something simple is much more difficult, because you have to keep saying, 'No, not that,' and refining it down into something that pleases you."
Most striking is the phantasmagorical orchestral music that Adams has composed for Kumudha's metamorphoses. It's an echo of Richard Strauss' opera "Daphne," whose protagonist also changes into a tree, although Adams claims not to like Strauss.
"Unlike Strauss, who got only one transformation to compose, here there's four. And the transformations are much more disturbing than Kumudha anticipates. It's as though she had casually dropped acid, and now it's not going to be just a regular Saturday night."
"A Flowering Tree" is the latest in a long string of collaborations between Adams and Sellars, one that also includes the operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer" as well as "Ceiling/Sky" and the Nativity oratorio "El Niño."
They met in 1983 at the Monadnock Music Festival in New Hampshire, and Adams says he was impressed by Sellars' "deep love and knowledge of music."
Sellars, in turn -- with his first astonishing theatrical productions of the operas of Handel and Mozart still ahead of him -- was dazzled by the combination of intellectual seriousness and sensual allure in Adams' music.
"They played this piece called 'Shaker Loops,' " he recalled, "and it was so hot compared with other American music of the time that just tried to impress you with its braininess. There were these touching Beethoven parts and these deep Bruckner structures.
"John's music was brainy too, but it also had great legs."