Country Band March Copland
Appalachian Spring – Suite Carter
Variations for Orchestra Adams
Absolute Jest [UK premiere] St. Lawrence String Quartet [Geoff Nuttall & Scott St John (violins), Lesley Robertson (viola) & Christopher Costanza (cello)]
London Symphony Orchestra
John Adams Barbican Hall, London
That John Adams has established a congenial working relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra was evident from the outset of this concert – its first half amounting to a potted history of American music from the earlier part of the twentieth-century, and with a recent orchestral (or should that be concertante?) work by Adams himself after the interval.
The evening got off to a lively and even raucous start with Charles Ives’s Country Band March (1905) – music whose breezy succession of Sousa-like tunes, subjected to any amount of rhythmic dislocation and textural pile-ups, found its rightful home as portions of ‘Putnam’s Camp’ from the orchestral set Three Places in New England a decade on, but which still packs no mean punch when heard as an affectionate send-up of time and place at the outset of its composer’s maturity.
Under Adams's attentive direction the LSO despatched this piece to the manner born, though the ensuing account of the suite from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944) was rather less persuasive. Not that the playing as such was found wanting (music and orchestra hardly being on unfamiliar terms), but there was a lack of continuity between the overtly inward and more dynamic sections – the latter a little inflexible for all the rhythmic incisiveness. The variations on ‘Simple Gifts’ built rather dutifully to their climax, while the coda had poise though little raptness or inward serenity.
A major work by Elliott Carter could not have been more appropriate given the composer’s recent death. Variations for Orchestra (1955) is less rebarbative than later pieces and has an audible connection to the earlier part of the last century such as conveys itself to first-time listeners. This is music as much about the variation process itself as of the theme which emerges reluctantly from the ominous introduction, then transforms itself over nine commentaries of vast textural and expressive range, before the finale builds to an expansive climax brutally curtailed by the emergence of trombones – whose baleful rendition of the theme brings its decline and summary extinction. Rather than securing the climax by harnessing the rhythmic impetus of the two ritornelli that accompany the theme, Adams opted for a straightforward accelerando that robbed the music of its inherent majesty. This was an effective compromise even so, crowning an account in which attention to detail was combined with a feel for the cohesion of the work as a whole.
Although the bringing together of string quartet and orchestra is hardly a new concept, it is sufficiently unusual to give Adams’s Absolute Jest (2012) more than a hint of novelty. Perhaps this in turn has governed the underlying conception of this piece, whose thematic material is almost entirely derived from scherzos of Beethoven – nominally those from the late string quartets (excerpts from which were played beforehand in an informal introduction by the composer), but with those from the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies also conspicuous by their presence. This, in turn, determines the musical follow-through – a rapid underlying tempo holding-good over its 27-minute span while also taking in a plethora of unlikely combinations and superimpositions such as encompass both direct quotes and more oblique allusions. Allied to some of the composer’s most appealing and inventive orchestration, this is also among the most entertaining of his recent works, and reinforces the impression that Adams is at his best when not trying too hard to espouse profundities.
It helped that the performance was finely attuned to the music’s requirements – not least a dedicated response from the St. Lawrence String Quartet, its members' close-knit integration with the orchestral texture not precluding a high level of virtuosity. Hopefully this ensemble will return soon to London.