John Adams’ ‘Flowering Tree’ at San Francisco Symphony

John Adams conducted the US premiere of his own masterwork, A Flowering Tree, at the S.F. Symphony this past weekend for three sold-out performances. Inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute, Adams drew on an ancient text translated into English by the Indian scholar and poet A. K. Ramanujan. Like the best fairy tales, this one had its audience wide-eyed and spellbound. We wore eveningwear, but it felt like feet-pajamas. A Flowering Tree is magical, mysterious and transformative. Rendering love into pain, and vulnerability into betrayal, it follows a Hindu path to loss and redemption, not your typical operatic plot line.
john adams
There is a seamless quality to the whole, a product of the careful composing, together with a richness of characterization. Stage director Peter Sellars, Adams’ long-time collaborator, talked about the evolution of this piece in a pre-concert interview. John Adams uses “…the energy of pop music, the rhythms of pop, just as Mozart was composing ‘pop’ music in the Magic Flute.

“After the giant work of Dr. Atomic, we wanted something small, intimate, that fits in the palm of your hand. Just three singers: Narrator, Boy and Girl. Not Grand Opera, but light on its feet.” He described how in Asian theater a character is represented by two people, a singer and a dancer, to engender different aspects. The Indian poetry was complemented by three Javanese dancers, a full chorus and instrumentation including low winds (bass clarinet and contrabassoon) and unconventional percussion. Sellars described Javanese classical dance as the slowest in the world, “…a depth of continuity…the pace at which a child grows, a flower opens.” This lean story with delicate poetry, evocative dance and music whose treatment changes with each character’s mood, is articulate and fluid, disparate yet never too exotic.

Sellars describes the music as having “two different temperatures. The first act is lush. The second is emotional… Nature refuses to die, an orchestral ecology.” The first act begins with a restless “twittering” of strings, then the cellos come in with a slow prefiguring of the vocal line. Eric Owens sings the demanding part of the Storyteller, modulating between rich bass and spoken word. I was fortunate enough to hear Owens as the commanding general in Dr. Atomic, which premiered last year at the SF Opera. He also sang Adams’ earlier composition, The Wound Dresser, which, with its nod to minimalism and vocal leaps, heralds the Storyteller.

Kumudha, the girl who transforms herself into a tree to sell her blossoms for her ailing mother, is sung by Jessica Rivera, who infuses the role with dignity and warmth, particularly in the prayers to Siva. A dancer accompanies her with slow unfolding limbs. Baritone Russell Thomas plays the Prince who woos Kumudha. He is believable: young, artless, passionate, abrupt, as he sings the erotic poetry,

My heart is frantic with haste,
a plowman with a single plow
land all wet and ready for seed.

Adams’s fluency of musical genre allows one emotional tone to flow into another. Minimalism gives way to a lyrical violin aria reminiscent of the expressive “Batter my Heart” aria in Dr. Atomic. And this shifts to an Asian scale, Balinese or Pentatonic. An angry and percussive chorus leads an oboe to softly cry. In the Second Act the dancers no longer depict the action, but enter into it intimately. They dance a “Pop Bollywood” mating ritual, fiercely rhythmic to rising French horn. The two Kumudhas, singer and dancer, hold each other as they writhe armless and legless across the stage. The Princes stagger along, carrying each other, as they wander through the desert. Adams creates a duet for them in their loneliness, deep notes of contrabassoon, anguished Prince, wistful Princess, atonal haunted horns.

Four parts of the day I grieve for you.
Four parts of the night I’m mad for you.
I laughed with him nightly,
the slow waves beating on his wide shores.

When minstrels find Kumudha the music becomes jagged, a parody of sexuality, to the rhythm of a Balinese monkey chant. Then the strings intercede, scraping like broken branches:

Kumudha, slowly, and with great tenderness,
pressed against his cold flesh,
massaging his chest with the stump of her arm.

Adams builds his climax slowly, trombones and cymbals, urgent unison rhythms, then a shimmering dissonance of horns dissolves into a miraculous major final chord.

—Adam Broner

Originally published by the Piedmont Post