BBCSO John Adams

My Father Knew Charles Ives
Naïve and Sentimental Music
Violin Concerto in G, K216

James Ehnes (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 26 January, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John Adams’s spoken introduction to this concert referred to the “autobiographical” qualities inherent in the two works of his presented in this programme. He also engagingly suggested that if Mozart were alive he would have felt himself “sandwiched between two pieces of American white bread”. One of Mozart’s violin concertos was certainly a slightly incongruous choice, but an intriguing one, and afforded an excellent contrast between the two Adams pieces, both recent in origin.

Adams confessed that his father had not known Charles Ives, though he might have done, but that the title referred to the fact that his relationship with his father was akin to Ives’s, in that both composers’ fathers were their early teachers and musical exemplars.

However, the Ivesian connection goes beyond title and family, since the music in My Father Knew Charles Ives is distinctly indebted to Ives the composer, primarily through the usage of layers of sound and quotation. In three movements – like Ives’s Three Places in New England, which Adams admits to being an influence – the first is entitled ‘Concord’. Not Concord, Massachusetts and the subtitle of Ives’s Second Piano Sonata, but Concord, New Hampshire, where Adams grew up.

Adams seems to be taking a sideways – or more direct – glance at Ives’s Fourth Symphony, since many of the textures are decidedly similar. Bells, trumpet calls, quotations from folk and popular songs, and other referential devices evoke a distinctive atmosphere – almost an ‘impressionist’ one, in fact. Alternate tranquil and raucous passages eventually fade out in a quiet conclusion.

‘The Lake’ – Adams’s second movement – has a shimmering opening with flecks of sound perhaps suggesting insects. A ‘bluesey’ trumpet suggests an affectionately nostalgic mood. The lake is Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and adjacent to it is a dance hall where John Adams’s parents met. The long oboe solos – with possible Mahlerian inflections – were beautifully played by Richard Simpson.

‘The Mountain’ – a more generalised reference – initially returns to the aura of ‘Concord’, but intensity gradually builds with sustained brass and animated strings. Reminiscences of earlier Adams in the form of flashes of colour from The Chairman Dances and propulsion from Short Ride in a Fast Machine moves the music to a climax eventually dissolving into a gentle luminosity tinged with bells.

John Adams – currently Artist in Association of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – secured a solid, confident performance and the players were evidently intent on realising his demands.

A much reduced orchestral body accompanied James Ehnes in a thought-provoking performance of Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto. Strange as it may seem, it was the accompaniment that generally afforded greater interest than the solo playing. Adams drew out subtle features of the orchestration, pointing up felicities of scoring and moments of harmonic acuity. In the process, there were moments where the soloist was covered, but James Ehnes’s slightly small-scale sound was at odds with the more richly drawn accompaniment.

The outer movements were not devoid of sparkle and Ehnes’s playing was neat and spry, whilst the slow movement’s cantilena violin-writing was delivered with poise and restrained expression. The whole, however, did not seem quite to ‘gel’, illuminating though Adams’s conducting and the BBCSO’s playing were.

Malcolm Hayes’s programme note and the composer’s own words referred to Naive and Sentimental Music as being a ‘symphony’ in all but name. On this one hearing, I would not readily affix that label to this work, but it certainly has the ingredients of a large-scale divertimento or even concerto for orchestra; perhaps more the latter, since considerable feats of virtuosity are required, especially in the final movement.

As with My Father Knew Charles Ives, Naive and Sentimental Music is cast in three parts, each with its own title. The interesting thing is that the music did not seem especially naïve nor sentimental, lest it be manifest through Adams’s characteristicopen-heartedness and lyrical melodic writing.

The title is take from Friedrich Schiller’s essay of 1795, referring to “Naive and Sentimental Poetry” and refers to the dichotomy faced by the creative artist. Philosophic musings rarely have any direct bearing upon a musical work, and one could perfectly well appreciate Adams’s composition without reference to Schiller.

The material of the first movement, which bears the title of the whole work, derives from a long, seamless melody given out initially by the winds. Adams refers to this as an “idée fixe”, though unlike Berlioz’s use of this device, the same theme does not recur in the other movements. The melody is accompanied by diatonic chords from harp, later joined by piano and guitar. Climaxes occur featuring quite aggressive, stabbing chords from the brass, and when the “idée fixe” is heard for a final time, an uneasy accompaniment does not suggest a placid resolution.

As in My Father Knew Charles Ives, allusions to earlier Adams make their mark. In addition to those already mentioned in connection with the former work, some of the textures and orchestral colourings from Harmonium and Nixon in China are to be heard.

‘Mother of the Man’ – the second movement – is generally morerestrained in character, with a new principal melody and, yes, asentimental guitar solo suggesting a wistful, even regretful air. Some strong string crescendos ruffle the air, but calm and gentleness are eventually restored.

The concluding ‘Chain to the Rhythm’ built to a most exhilaratingclimax, having started with pithy thematic and rhythmic ideas. This is Adams – perhaps in spite of himself – hoisting his true minimalist flag and waving it vigorously and triumphantly.

John Adams has continually developed his frame of reference away from the constraints of minimalism but, ironically, in the music which was heard in this concert, it was precisely when he was using this style uninhibitedly – and with reference to other works firmly in that style – that the music really took wing. Certainly, ‘Chain to the Rhythm’ is an exciting movement, with the repetitions generating power of their own accord.

The BBCSO was a willing partner. Indeed, its playing throughout this concert was impressive, be it in expressive passages or generating a head of steam under John Adams’s propulsive direction.

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