A good composer must have a good ear‹the ability to not only listen within, but also without, to the compelling sound worlds swirling about him. To be sure, John Adams has great ears, and part of his job as holder of The Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall is to curate several programs at Zankel Hall. And his In Your Ear Too festival, from February 17 to 19, casts a net much wider than anyone might have guessed.
"The festival encompasses myriad styles and genres," observes Adams. "But that's Carnegie Hall's great tradition: it's where An American in Paris and Ellington's New World A-Comin' were given their first performances. There was the famous Benny Goodman concert in 1938, and on and on and on. It isn't just the fiefdom for traditional classical music. It's also a place where a lot of new ideas happen."
The festival opens with Rinde Eckert, who is, to put it bluntly, a singular sensation. Blessed with a three-octave vocal range that includes a highly developed falsetto, Eckert is a gifted writer who can also play a dozen instruments and can move with the grace of Margot Fonteyn. He creates mostly one-man theatrical experiences that you are not likely to forget.
"Rinde is very high energy and very personable," says Adams. "I hesitate to call him a performance artist because that's a strange term that can often be misunderstood. He delivers very powerful and, at times, even disturbing performances. I have to confess I haven't seen Rinde for quite a long time, so part of the reason for having him is just pure selfishness on my part."
This selfishness turns out to be quite generous. Eckert's offering is what the performer views as his "quintessential Gesamtkunstwerk": An Idiot Divine, which consists of two pieces, "Dry Land Divine" and "The Idiot Variations."
The first piece is a 25-minute story about a man who has killed his brother in a drunken rage. He is subsequently visited in prison by an angel who brings a little red accordion and tells him that he will only achieve redemption by learning to play all those old accordion tunes.
"Essentially, we see him in the middle of this learning process after the visitation," explains Eckert. "He goes through the grief and guilt of the murder he committed. Understanding the two brothers is problematic because the one who seems to represent the sacred actually is a profanation and vice versa." Eckert plays both.
"The Idiot Variations," the more abstract of the two pieces, comes from an experience Eckert had watching people throw stones while waiting for a ferry ride in Seattle.
"I noticed one kid who was clearly different from anyone else," Eckert recalls. "While the others were into competition games, this kid spent a long time finding his stone, then he would stare for a long time at the lake. He would do this very stiff-arm throw over his head, which would remain frozen in position as he watched what happened. He didn't really know how to throw a stone properly. Upon closer examination, I realized that he was mentally challenged. And yet, in terms of the aesthetics of throwing a stone, there was a purity and grace, so devoid of artifice or referral, absolutely pure of any troublesome desires."
Eckert was also reminded of the countless street musicians he has chanced upon who played with a passion and earnestness that was utterly intoxicating. Eckert melded these two ideas into a powerful meditation on what William Carlos Williams referred to as the "happy genius."
"In my piece, you are watching an idiot who becomes increasingly aware of his vulnerability," says Eckert. "But at the same time, there is a sense that the music‹the instruments and singing‹saves him from that tragic awareness."
For the next program in the festival, on the recommendation of his son, a committed jazz player, Adams brought in Dave Douglas & Keystone.
"Douglas is representative of a new wave in jazz that's vital and imaginative," says Adams. "He's deeply informed by the classics of the past‹from Miles to Coltrane‹with a highly sophisticated new worldview. I was very interested in jazz when I was young, and my formative years were as influenced by jazz as they were by classical music and rock."
Adams refers to the program on Sunday afternoon, February 19, featuring pianist Nicolas Hodges, violinist Geoff Nuttall, and clarinetist-composer Derek Bermel, as "Three Wild & Crazy Guys."
"The idea was to put together three unique performers for whom making music is never business as usual," explains Adams. "The way they approach their instruments is something that makes them very special, and putting them together was a kind of husbandry that I think I would like to do more of during my Carnegie Hall residency."
Each player will have 20 minutes for solo work. Hodges will perform an unconventional program featuring music by Harrison Birtwistle and Beethoven. Nuttall will do a Biber virtuoso piece from the baroque followed by a Carnegie Hall-commissioned piece by Canadian composer Chris Paul Harman. Bermel will play Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Clarinet plus a work of his own, Thracian Sketches, based on Bulgarian clarinet techniques. They all come together for Bartók's Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano.
The final program goes to Trio Joubran, a Palestinian group of three brothers whom Adams stumbled upon while teaching at the Sundance Film School in Utah in the summer of 2004. There he met a Palestinian filmmaker who presented a film he had made about three Nazareth-born virtuosi of the oud, the Middle Eastern lute. The brothers‹Samir, Wissam, and Adnan‹will be making their New York debuts.
"I couldn't get over how wonderful they were," remembers Adams. "The film I discovered them in was about their personalities as well. The oldest is very dictatorial, a genius at the instrument. Then there's the mellow middle brother. The youngest one is a dreamboat, possibly the most talented of them all, but perhaps the least disciplined."
Edgy, gritty, mind-blowing‹all, as Adams himself would insist, absolutely a part of the Carnegie Hall tradition.
Robert Hilferty is an arts reporter and music critic for Bloomberg News, Radio, and Television.