Monterey Symphony commissions Dave and Chris Brubeck’s Ansel Adams: America.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”
Now Adams’ extraordinary black-and-white photographic “performances” have been set to music by another icon, pianist and jazz legend Dave Brubeck. Ansel Adams: America will be performed by the Monterey Symphony, which co-commissioned the piece, on Oct. 17-19 at Sherwood Hall in Salinas and Sunset Theater in Carmel.
Brubeck, who co-wrote the music with his son Chris, has much in common with the late Adams. Although born 18 years apart, their careers and philosophies reflect and intersect one another very much like the musical composition itself. For one, they are both native Northern Californians who were deeply affected by the outdoors growing up.
Adams grew up rambling through the dunes and tide pools near San Francisco’s Seal Rock beach. At 14, he visited Yosemite Valley for the first time. On that trip in 1916, his parents gave him his first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie. In 1925, he decided to become a concert pianist, but later abandoned that goal and devoted his life to photography, eventually forming the f/64 group with photographer Edward Weston. The group promoted a kind of photography that, unlike the styles then in fashion, was simple and realistic – and not an imitation of other art forms.
Brubeck was born in Concord and moved to the Sacramento Valley, where his father ran a cattle ranch. After Brubeck received his driver’s license at 14, he frequently drove his mother to Yosemite. The youngest of three sons, he intended to follow his father into the cattle business. His mother, a piano teacher, insisted he attend college. He enrolled at the University of the Pacific in Stockton to become a veterinarian but changed his major to music when he was seduced by the sounds emanating from the Music Conservatory.
After graduating in 1942, he served almost four years in the Army. Upon his return from Europe at the end of World War II, he enrolled at Mills College in Oakland to study composition with the French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud encouraged the young Brubeck to seek a dual career in both jazz and composition.
In 2006, Brubeck’s son Chris was approached by Susan Carson, a Northern California patron of the arts with the idea of an orchestra performing original music while Ansel Adams’ photographic images were projected in the concert hall. The elder Brubeck, at age 88, was reluctant to commit to such a large undertaking, but – after reading Adams’ autobiography and recognizing how the new frontier of the American West in the twentieth century had created thematic similarities in their respective art forms – agreed.
To inspire the 22-minute score, Brubeck was given a book of 400 Ansel Adams photographs. He composed the work first as a piano piece, imagining the rhythms and melodies of Half Dome in Yosemite, the glimmering rivers, stark desert landscapes, roaring falls and quiet meadows of the West. When Brubeck learned that Adams had been studying to be a concert pianist, it inspired him to incorporate the styles of Bach and Chopin, two of Adams’ favorite composers, into the score. He also turned the rhythm of Ansel Adams’ name into the main theme of the piece, a process he has used in the past. His son, Chris, later transformed the finished piano piece into a full orchestral score.
“It’s a dramatic piece of music,” says Joseph Truskot, president and CEO of the Monterey Symphony. “Like an intense film score. The music really moves with the images. The feel changes. For instance, images of the deserts in New Mexico and Arizona have Latin rhythms. The piece ends with Adams’ shot of the moon over half dome. It’s breathtaking.”
According to Truskot, the fact that the piece will be performed in two separate venues was technically challenging.
“This is the first time the Monterey Symphony has done something like this,” he says. “Two different halls means two wholly different projection challenges.”
To get permission from the Ansel Adams Trust, the performance had to respect the compositional integrity of Adams’ art. Only full and complete images are projected during the performance – without close-ups, panning, or other video techniques. In fact, the score from which conductor Max Bragado-Darman and his musicians work includes Adams’ photos alongside the notes.
Also on the program is Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” which was composed during the Czech’s journey to America from 1892 to 1895. The piece is particularly inspired by the Native American music and African-American spirituals Dvorák heard on his travels.