One of the seminal musical experiences of my student years came at a John Adams concert, some ten years ago. He was conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme of his music. His piano concerto, Century Rolls, and the punchy showpiece Lollapalooza made up the first half; a much longer one occupied the second. The title of that concluding piece I knew from browsing CDs in HMV (those were the days), but I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it and I certainly knew nothing of its connection to Arnold Schoenberg. Harmonielehre knocked me for six.
The piece became a post-minimalist classic almost immediately after its 1985 premiere. The 1987 first performance of Adams’s first opera, Nixon in China, catapulted him to international fame, and the two works share a similar orchestral palate and distinctive turn of harmony. The sheer physical force of the thing was what gripped me so on first hearing, with the last movement in particular seeming to exert an inexorable thrust towards an inevitable conclusion. In fact, there was much more going on than my teenage self was initially able to discern: a substantial nod to Schoenberg (whom Adams holds in ambivalent regard and from whose 1911 study of harmony the work takes its name), a sweeping away of the accumulated twentieth-century avant-garde musical vernacular, inspiration drawn from images of the composer’s own dreams.
Years and many hearings later, it still seems to be one of Adams’s most powerful scores – more confidently focused and assertive than some of his most recent works. Some of the rapture of that first encounter has dissipated with familiarity, but the finale (‘Meister Eckhart and Quackie’) pulses and flows with single-minded direction and the musical references tell more with knowledge of their antecedents. The richly melancholic melody that emerges some way into the first movement rose with aching purpose from the LSO in this 2013 rematch. Though there were odd discrepancies of tuning, the LSO’s collective virtuosity made this dazzling complex work sound deceptively simple – perhaps a little too so, as some of the thrill of the music’s teeming activity was lost under the cool veneer of control. It’s difficult to doubt the decisions composers make when performing their own works; still, the glorious tune that emerges from the rocking orchestral texture at the outset of the finale seemed curiously under-played and under-paced. Pace, though, proved ultimately to be on Adams’s side, as the sprint for the end unfolded with geological certainty.
Mahler and Sibelius are two composers evoked in the pages of Harmonielehre, but Adams complimented it with music by Bartók and Debussy. The former’s Dance Suite is, apparently, a score close to Adams’s heart – it’s not hard to hear why a composer of such strong minimalist roots might be drawn to the circular melodies of the Hungarian composer’s folk-inspired music, here dabbling in diverse musical languages, rendering the eclectic material with gritty thrusting determination. Adams’s direction wasn’t as smooth as it might be, but the LSO painted vividly thrusting pictures for him.
Adams showed his skill in musical recreation in his 1993 orchestration of four songs from Debussy's Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, entitled, for this re-christening, Le Livre de Baudeliare. ‘Harmonie du Soir’ and ‘Recuillement’ glowed with authentic Debussyian lustre – Adams got the detail right. The first song, ‘Le balcon’, had more of the swagger of Richard Strauss about it, complete with spirited violin solo. Dawn Upshaw gave vividly felt performances of these elaborate texts, capturing the tranquillity of the cycle’s conclusion particularly well. Despite the considerable volume of her voice, however, she was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestral writing. Adams looked to be having too good a time to consider such matters; with such an ensemble at the reins, who could blame him?
- Sunday 27 January: John Adams conducts the LSO in music by Copland, Elliott Carter, Ives and his own Absolute Jest