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'Klinghoffer': Too Hotto Handle?

Opera: Boston Symphony Orchestra opted not to perform excerpts of John Adams' project based on a 1985 terrorist attack, but he isn't going quietly.

November 20, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Next week at Symphony Hall in Boston, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform a program that begins with Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 1, instead of John Adams' "Klinghoffer" Choruses. Therein lies a controversy.

Last month, the Boston orchestra managers e-mailed the composer that, for all their admiration of his music, they felt it would not be sensitive to the mood of the times to program the choruses, which are excerpts from the 1991 opera "The Death of Klinghoffer." They suggested substituting another major Adams work for chorus and orchestra, "Harmonium," with texts by Emily Dickinson. Adams did not agree to the change and asked that his music not be performed.

In various press reports on the East Coast, Adams has been characterized as very angry over this fracas, although he has said little about the situation publicly. Agreeing to comment to The Times on Sunday, Adams, in town to conduct the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra last weekend, suggested that disappointment came closer to describing the way he felt.

"The cancellation of a performance was certainly something I could live with," he said, nursing bronchitis at the home of a local patron. He had not objected, for instance, when his popular fanfare "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" was removed for obvious reasons from a symphony program in London a week after the death of Princess Diana. But he felt differently about the "Klinghoffer" choruses being performed nearly three months after the Sept. 11 tragedy.

"I was concerned about what the reasons given for the cancellation had to say about classical music," he explained. "I do think that symphonies and opera companies are very skittish in this country, and I'm sorry that they are, because it confirms the distressing image of symphony-goers as fragile and easily frightened. That's really a shame, because I want to think of symphonic concerts as every bit as challenging as going to MOCA or to see 'Angels in America.'

"The reason that I asked them not to do 'Harmonium' was that I felt that 'Klinghoffer' is a serious and humane work, and it's also a work about which many people have made prejudicial judgments without even hearing it. I felt that if I said, 'OK, "Klinghoffer" is too hot to handle, do "Harmonium,"' that in a sense I would be agreeing with the judgment about 'Klinghoffer."'

The seven choruses from "Klinghoffer," Adams' opera about the Palestinian hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, provide broad philosophical comment on the situation in the Middle East. They concentrate on the landscape, looking at it as mysterious and powerfully religious. Although the first chorus is in the voice of Palestinians and ends with an expression of violence--"Our faith/Will take the stones he broke/And break his teeth"--that violence is but a minute in more than 40 in which the Israeli point of view is also expressed. The overall tone is reflective, difficult poetry of symbols and allegory.

Still that minute of violent music has been cited as causing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus anguish. A member lost her husband on one of the hijacked airplanes Sept. 11, and the chorus was said to feel uneasy performing the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians." Robert Spano, guest conductor of the Boston Symphony program and an Adams champion, agreed that these might just be too tender times for such music.

Adams, who had not been told about the chorus members' situation until recently, said he certainly sympathized with their trauma, and he realizes that Spano and the Boston Symphony management "obviously suffered over their decision before they made it and clearly they have suffered after they made it." But still he feels that it was the wrong decision. "In the end, I think [it] was based largely on an assumption of a very timid and easily offended audience."

In daily life, Adams notes that "Americans now are eating dinner while they're watching bombs being dropped on Afghanistan, watching dead bodies being pulled from the rubble, watching those horrific images for the 100th time. Every American has done it. Why, then, is hearing the 'Chorus of Exiled Palestinians' in Symphony Hall too much to bear?"

Meanwhile the Boston Symphony will attempt to skirt controversy with Copland's symphony from 1924, a piece with its own kind of early Modernist violence. One contemporary review likened its "squalling" scherzo to the screaming of "a bewildered banshee which by some twist of locale has found itself at the Wailing Wall."

Still, there is nothing like the "Klinghoffer" controversy to awaken interest. Adams says that after the cancellation, one major American opera company, which he can't name, has expressed interest in producing the opera. A previously scheduled concert performance went forward in Amsterdam last month; another is scheduled for January in London, where a television film of the opera is also in production. Several European companies, he says, are also looking into productions.

All of this makes Adams wonder whether the Boston situation might simply be a tempest in a teapot. "I do really feel that if they had just gone ahead and performed the 'Klinghoffer' Choruses, there might have been a few upset people, but I think there would not have been much controversy. In fact, I'm almost certain that would have been the case."

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