The Kennedy Center

Four Angels for Harp and Orchestra

About the Work

Mark Adamo Composer: Mark Adamo
© Richard Freed

Four Angels, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra for its principal harpist Dotian Levalier, was completed last fall and is receiving its world premiere performances in the present concerts.

In addition to the solo harp, the score, dedicated to Leonard Slatkin and Dotian Levalier, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, conga drum, brake drum, bell tree, chime in F, small tam tam, 2 gongs, 3 Chinese Opera gongs, guiro, crotales, sandpaper blocks, 5 temple blocks, wood block, vibraslap, whip, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, 2 suspended cymbals, tambourine, triangle, celesta, piano, and strings. Duration, 24 minutes.

Barely a dozen years ago Mark Adamo was living in Washington, writing concert reviews for The Washington Post, and serving as composer in residence to the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. It was that ensemble (whose conductor, then as now, was Sylvia Alimena, a member of the NSO horn section) that commissioned and introduced his first extended work, Late Victorians, a setting of texts by Richard Rodriguez and Emily Dickinson which, like his partner John Corigliano's First Symphony, was conceived as a memorial to the victims of AIDS. As recently as 1999 Eclipse introduced his Alcott Portraits, an orchestral work derived from material in his hugely successful opera Little Women.

That opera, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera for Houston Opera Studio and given its premiere in March 1998, established Mr. Adamo as an opera composer to be reckoned with; it has since been produced by more than twenty other companies in the United States and abroad, broadcast in PBS's"Great Performances" series, and recorded on the Ondine label. Only last month, three major Australian organizations—the Adelaide Art Orchestra, State Opera of South Australia, and State Theatre Company of South Australia—collaborated in a new production of Little Women that represented the work's Down-Under premiere. Among the companies that produced Little Women earlierwas the New York City Opera, which took the work to Japan and made Mr. Adamo its composer in residence, responsible for its contemporary opera workshop VOX, focusing on American composers. A second Houston commission, Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess (actually a joint commission with Opera Columbus), was introduced in Houston in March 2005 and was given by the New York City Opera in March of last year. Like Richard Wagner and the late Gian Carlo Menotti, Mr. Adamo is his own librettist and has also become active as a stage director.

In addition to the ten-minute chamber opera Avow, composed in 1999, Mr. Adamo has written numerous choral works, among them Pied Beauty, commissioned by the Washington Singers; Canticle, for Chanticleer, Three Appalachian Folk Tunes, commissioned by the Congressional Chorus of the United States; QWERTYUIOP, for chorus and mad soprano (a Dadaist comedy on typing lessons), and Cantate Domino, for the Choral Arts Society of Washington.

The present work, Mr. Adamo's first for the National Symphony Orchestra, was commissioned and composed specifically for the orchestra's longtime principal harpist Dotian Levalier. Recalling another American composer whose theatrical bent made itself felt in his concert works—Leonard Bernstein—Mr. Adamo has given this harp concerto a descriptive title and assigned headings indicating specific programmatic or descriptive contexts for each of its four movements. He has kindly expanded upon their significance in a detailed note of his own.

The passionate and protean angels of art and scripture bear little resemblance to the images of simpering cherubim everywhere prevalent in mass culture. Likewise, the charismatic, potentially dominant harp— inevitably underscoring those images—has been constantly caricatured as just the golden vehicle of glamourous, glissando sentimentality. I wondered: could one make a concerto that uses only the personae—not any explicit narrative—of angels from different cultures to liberate both image and instrument from centuries of cliché?

Why not? And what fun: ransacking sacred and secular texts for the most interesting figures I could find! But a concerto is a musical challenge, not a literary pageant: and this one's main compositional hurdles weren't the ones you'd expect. Don't think the harp can't be heard! It's no more difficult to balance with full orchestra than is the solo violin. But most composers have conditioned us for centuries to hear the harp only as accompaniment: the orchestra sings the music, and the harp…decorates it. Could one compose a musical dialogue of which the harp's leadership was not only audible, but unmissable? Could the harp and the orchestra—forcefully, eloquently—reverse roles?

Overture: METATRON. In the Kabbalah, the angel closest to the throne of God. He stands at the peak of a tree of angels, surrounded by storm, thunder, whirlwinds, and lightning. He has seventy-two wings and countless fiery eyes. His eyelashes are lightning, his bones are made of embers, his sinews and flesh of flame. Beyond Metatron stands only the mystical contemplation of God.

Before the orchestra stands the harp alone, its strings swathed in thick and glittering paper. A five-note motto launches spiraling arpeggi in the strings. They're answered, anticlimactically, by the muted harp, noncommittal as a harpsichord. Woodwinds echo the gesture: the harp remains unmoved. Only a firestorm of pizzicato strings prompts the harp to a full statement—supported only by lowest brass—of an imperious theme which incorporates that five-note motto: a theme that no sooner reaches a peak than it evanesces in a cloudbank of bells.

Scherzo: SRAOSHA. In Zoroastrianism, the Angel of Divine Intuition: one of the four attendants of Ashi, who is Truth, Justice, Virtue, Holiness, Cosmic Law, and Order. Brother and playmate to Meher, the Angel of Light and Mercy, and Rashnu, the Angel of the Judgment of Good and Evil. Rustling drums, ringing mallets—quiet percussion declaims and subsides.

Strings crunch in and out of exact pitch: and isn't that the harp, too, in its lowest register, growling out of intonation before twanging into tune? (Unusual pedaling makes it possible.) And that duet-improvisation on the first movement's imperious theme—are those Peking Opera glissandi all played by Chinese gongs, or has the harp, improbably, learned their inflections too?

Aria: REGINA COELI. Mary, mother of Jesus; in Roman Catholicism, the Angelic Queen, who, at the hour of her death, was assumed bodily into heaven by the seven orders of angels over whom she now reigns. She intercedes on behalf of human beings at the right hand of God.

Strings alone—high, pulseless— meditate on the rising second, the arching triplets, of the first movement's theme. At length, the harp presents its own, simpler version: less an edict than a prayer of thanksgiving, the harp lifts the melody out of the sterner, denser harmonies of its first incarnation and frames it instead in clean C major.

Finale: MIK'HAIL. The archangel Michael, the beautiful warrior prince of the heavenly hosts, crosses Abrahamic boundaries: he is protector of the Roman Catholic Church, patron of the Hebrew nation, and, with the archangel Gabriel, appeared to the prophet Mohammed. His name means"Looks Like God or"Is As God." He can appear in three of the seven heavens simultaneously. Michael is made of snow.

Strings and brass sound an ostinato alarm: now in twelve, now in five, the music cannot settle on one pulse. Enter the harp: its intervals are familiar, but its rhythm is now martially regular, and its phrase-endings vanish under hammer-blows of octaves. A dense polychord halts the music's flow, then promptly shatters into shards: now harp and orchestra assemble from that polychord a fleet, octave-vaulting melody, its crisp sixteenths fugitive as fireflies. While the orchestra continues in those pointed gestures, the harp fuses its own fragments into climbing scales: pauses for a cadenza-like consideration of the opening harmonies; and at length resumes the main theme—the theme which has united all four movements—and drives it to a climax of rhythm and color.