Last week's program at the San Francisco Symphony carried a sense of celebration with it. John Adams was in attendance, giving luster to the orchestra's new performance and recording of his "Harmonielehre" under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (Edo De Waart taped the piece in his final year as Music Director, when Adams was composer-in-residence.) There has always been a tendency to rally around the orchestra in San Francisco — cultural boosterism being one of the old-fashioned charms of this now rather important city, which sometimes still thinks of itself as a town and behaves like one in its enthusiasms — and John Adams is a local hero in the orchestra's history. But the spontaneous applause I heard on Saturday seemed to go beyond these boundaries. It is a though, from the standpoint of an audience, Adams were being hailed for having rescued contemporary music — and indeed, he just may have.
One of the consolations of living in a successful middle-class society, I think, is to experience the evaporation of self-consciously plug-ugly proletarian art and music. Many of the last century's early musical compositions seem today unnecessarily obsessed with wheezing 'round the campfire, banging on pots and pans, or otherwise ramming washtub crudities down the listener's throat. Even where it isn't that obvious, the blue-collar bias can be detected: "Barefoot Songs" by Tubin. "Hammersmith" by Holst, Milhaud's "Le Boeuf sur le toit,” and of course, almost everything by Copland. Just under the surface of most music from the 1920s and 30s, you could say, lies a post office mural. And like post office murals, sometimes it is great art, sometimes propaganda, and sometimes just not worthy of restoration.