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Denk Plays Adams: A Review (or: geriatric LARPING) | Sam Debatin | Mon 07 Feb 2022 07:52:28 PM EST

Despite living in Ohio for most of my life, I've somehow never made it to the Cleveland Orchestra. And despite the Cleveland Orchestra consistenly ranking among the top five orchestras in the country, I've never registered that they are only a little over three hours away. That's a pretty short drive for world class musicianship. After enrolling in their student program and finding out that I can buy week-of tickets for only $15, I scoured their calendar for something worth going to.

A program entitled Denk Plays Adams caught my eye. I recognized both names -- I've enjoyed Jeremy Denk's playing for a while now, although mostly through his Goldberg Variations, which are good if not a little overhyped. John Adams is familiar to me mostly through the movie Call Me by Your Name, which uses his piece Hallelujah Junction as a major thematic work. Name recognition seemed as good a way as any to choose a day, so here we are. Row J, seat 201.1

To be completely honest, I'm not sure if Adams's conducting (or even composition) are quite my style. In comparison with other conductors I've seen, Adams seemed stiff and uninspired, not giving the musicians all that much to work with. I don't know if stiff is his idea of the conducting required for minimalist pieces, or if he simply is not a very expressive conductor to begin with.

I don't really want to belabor the minutae of the performance, though. The orchestra played well and seemed to be having a good time, and the pieces were overall good. The program was as follows:

  1. Reich - Three Movements for Orchestra
  2. Simon - Fate Now Conquers
  3. Smith - Tumblebird Contrails
  4. Glass - Façades from Glassworks
  5. Adams - Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

If you want to know what I liked best for some reason, here they are in order of best to worst along with a two second review of each:

  1. Reich - Three Movements for Orchestra
  2. Adams - Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?
  3. Smith - Tumblebird Contrails
  4. Simon - Fate Now Conquers
  5. Glass - Façades from Glassworks

Reich in real life is incredible. It treminds me why I like strings and counterpoint. Adams was quite good although a little dissonant at times in a way that didn't make sense to my ears. Smith is a brand new composer who managed to pull off sound effect music in a way that wasn't gimmicky and still harmonically complex. Simon was too bombastic for my taste, but played very well. I like Glass less every time I hear him -- what's up with his sense of harmony?

· · ·

Anyway, on to more interesting matters.

I spent nearly the entire day with old people. Having gone to the Van Gogh exhibition in Columbus as well that day (which was well worth the visit and warrants its own post -- coming soon) and gone out to dinner at a family Italian place, I was struck by how much I actually liked old people. I know that as a twenty-two year old I'm supposed to be annoyed by anyone older than thirty, but old people just know how to hang out like nobody else. I felt at home just perusing the paintings, sitting calmly and eating and listening to a concert. They had nothing to prove, no reason to show off. Having probably exhausted every other topic of conversation in their life already, the octogenarians among the crowd were content with simply talking about a nice set of lawn chairs they used the other day. Maybe that's just normal conversation, I don't know, but I appreciated how people were able to take a moment and talk to one another. Also -- nobody was on their phone during intermission save for one or two millenial interlopers. Darn millenials.

I wonder sometimes if that difference is real, or if it is simply in my head. And if it is real, is that generational, or does that just happen when you get old? Why am I wanting to sit in a comfy chair and spend the evening reading and doing the crossword?2 What happened to going to parties? I used to care about that, but I really just want to chill. My ideal day is sitting and sipping coffee with my friends for hours. Is that too much to ask?

Sometimes I wish I had more performances where people actually listened. While I like when people are dancing and chatting and even sometimes screaming, I sometimes feel like any musicality I attempt to convey is just lost in a mass of screams and noise. It was nice to be a part of a crowd where everybody is forced to listen intently, all enjoying music that is best listened to intently.

I know I linked a photo3 of the interior of the hall above, but I wanted to include a couple more photos of the lobby area. Built in the early 20th century, Severance hall is this weird Orientalist art-deco mashup, featuring ornate railings, "egyptian"(?) people, and palms. Harper remarked: we are on the Titanic right now. It feels nice to enter a space that, although its steeped in bourgeois fantasies and whatnot, is actually kind of nice and people treat it that way? Like you can wear a suit jacket and not feel out of place. It seems good for the soul to dress up every once in a while and feel fancy. We don't often get the opportunity to do that in the 21st century, so I'm glad there are still places that allow for us to play a little dressup.

1. Those seats normally cost upwards of $140. Thank you student prices for letting me think I'm a bougie old man.
2. Crosswords have recently been reinvigorated in me. With everyone playing WORDLE (which I actually quite like now), I've been reminded that language games are a. extremely fun and b. extremely difficult. Maybe when I'm fifty I'll understand more of the pop-culture references in them, although that always seems difficult to me.
3. I will never embed photos in this blog. However, I will be more than happy to link to photos.