The Nixon Tapes – Scenes from Nixon in China
Sydney Opera House/ Opera Australia/ Vivid Live
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
June 5, 2017
When the Sydney Opera House, Vivid and Opera Australia presented The Nixon Tapes – Scenes from Nixon in China, the opera by John Adams, it was immediately evident that this was firstly, a rare opportunity to hear the fine musicians of the Opera Australia Orchestra in a symphonic context. Secondly, it was for them, a singular venture into a new and beautiful sonic landscape, moulded superbly by visiting British conductor and Adams specialist Andrew Mogrelia.
The concert’s title was derived from the post-interval segment which featured orchestra, solo singers and the Opera Australia Chorus performing a concert setting of excerpts from Adams’ debut opera. The first half of the concert featured two complex orchestral pieces by young composers whose writings straddle the 20th and 21st centuries.
Opening the programme was Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s 18 minute composition for 30 piece string orchestra, Popcorn Superhet Reciever (2005), commissioned by BBC’s Radio 3. Greenwood (b 1971), says he modelled it on “thoughts of background noise and radios.” If the music sounded familiar, it was featured on the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 cinematic masterpiece There Will Be Blood which earned Greenwood an award for Special Artistic Contribution at its Berlin International Film Festival premiere as well as a nomination for the BBC’s British Composer Award.
Led by Huy-Nguyen Bui the orchestra built an acoustic of relentlessly nerve-jangling dissonance as clusters of chords move part by microtonal part, with sinuous glissandi, evoking Greenwood’s inspiration from the static of a superheterodyne (superhet) radio receiver and the crunching chords of Polish composer Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima. You could almost smell the hot butter as the strings plucked, strummed (yes, even the cello) and slapped their way through the following popcorn section, rich in complex rhythms, before reprising the eerie gliding.
Popcorn Superhet Reciever is popularly and effectively paired with St Carolyn by The Sea, (2011), by American composer and The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner (b 1976). It was the Australian premiere of this piece, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur. It combines a minimalist aesthetic with rich harmonies. To perform it, the orchestra was joined by guitar virtuosi Jy-Perry Banks and Zane Banks.
Through all the complexities of these two aperitif, Mogrelia maintained a strong sense of ensemble with his understated though meticulous conducting style, creating strong rhythms, dynamic phrases and a spectrum of novel tones and timbres. An altogether Vivid performance, it might be said!
The concert performance of Scenes from Nixon in China comprised arias and choruses from two of the three acts of John Adams’ opera. Conceived in 1982 by Peter Sellars and completed in 1987, Nixon in China is the tale of Richard Nixon’s momentous visit to China in February 1972. The Opera Australia Chorus took to the choir stalls with an outstanding line-up of soloists comprising baritones Christopher Tonkin as Chou En-Lai and Luke Gabbedy as Nixon; bass David Parkin had a pop-up role as Henry Kissinger; soprano Jane Ede sang the role of Pat Nixon and soprano Eva Kong made a firebrand appearance as the malevolent Madame Mao Tse-Tung.
Gabbedy, with his towering voice played a marvelous Nixon; Ede starred as a ladylike Pat Nixon and Eva Kong crowned the show with her shrewish and terrifying version of I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung. Apart from Gabbedy and Ede, and despite impeccable diction, the other voices were beset by acoustic difficulties. Ede and Kong created a dramatic contrast between their characters as two women, completely opposite in character – one subservient, the other corrosive – married to men of extraordinary power.
The orchestra, was sensational, creating a refreshingly unaccustomed sound, sans bassoons, French horns and tuba, augmented by a saxophone section, keyboards and synthesiser, and a wood block, sandpaper blocks, slapsticks and sleigh bells in the percussion. The chorus, under Chorus Master Anthony Hunt performed with its customary ‘Wow!’ factor.
The programmes were gratis and helpfully contained Alice Goodman’s libretto to the excerpts from Nixon in China, but contained little biographical or musicological information that is not available in the public domain.
Contemporary sounds and stories recounted in a classical vein – classical music is not dead but evolving. Now that the water has been tested – wouldn’t it be grand to see the opera in its entirety?!
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLike Sydney©