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New hall, new work, old story

November 09, 2003|Mark Swed

In 1971, the Kennedy Center in Washington opened with a new work for the National Symphony Orchestra by one of America's most popular composers that was influenced by the counterculture and that stretched the barriers of what symphonic music was thought to be, including by using electric guitar. Not everyone was exhilarated by this provocative new change in direction from Leonard Bernstein. Many found "Mass" messy, vulgar and over-the-top. The Nixon White House decided to sit this one out.

Sound familiar? Last month, the Walt Disney Concert Hall's opening included a new work by one of America's most popular composers that was influenced by such counterculture icons as Jack Kerouac and that stretched the barriers of what symphonic music is thought to be by featuring alternate tuning and a loud electric violin. Not everyone was exhilarated by this provocative new change in direction from John Adams. Some reviewers found his "The Dharma at Big Sur" messy, vulgar and vapid. The Bush White House excused itself from joining city, county and state officials with a formal greeting for the new hall.

Attitudes toward "Mass," however, have changed radically. At the premiere, a reportedly mortified Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who commissioned the work, didn't know what to say to Bernstein backstage. But now "Mass" is regarded as exalted and trend-setting rather than impossibly excessive and trendy. And the greatest proof of its acceptance will be the performances of it given by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 22 and 23 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.

The work will be fully staged in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center by Michael Scarola and conducted by William Eddins. One more tie-in with the Music Center: The original staging in Washington was by Center Theatre Group head Gordon Davidson. Perhaps the next stop for "Mass" should be Disney.

-- Mark Swed

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