Ensemble ACJW/John Adams

Son of Chamber Symphony
Concerto for Piano and Winds
Louis Andriessen
De Staat

Jeremy Denk (piano)

Ensemble ACJW
John Adams

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 10 May, 2010
Venue: Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City

John Adams. Photograph: Deborah O'GradyTake twenty of the world’s finest young classical musicians. Bring them together as a virtuoso chamber ensemble led by world-class talent. Give them access to superb teachers, coaches, and mentors. Place them in New York City public schools for a little over a month to give them a hands-on experience as a pedagogue. That, in a nutshell, is the mission of The Academy, a collaborative program between Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, the Weill Music Institute, and the New York City Department of Education.

Ensemble ACJW, the performing arm of The Academy, presents an ambitious series of programs in the greater New York City area, with frequent stops at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall’s downstairs venue. This early-evening performance was conducted by composer John Adams. Before having seen Adams on the podium for the first time about two decades ago, I was a little skeptical, given my own long-ago experiences playing under composers, but I have been consistently impressed by the results Adams gets from both student and professional ensembles. His conducting technique is restrained and without gimmicks, short on histrionics but big on clarity of rhythm and cues – and the emphatic and striking results he gets leave a strong impression.

The program commenced with Adams’s own Son of Chamber Symphony, commissioned by Stanford University, Carnegie Hall and San Francisco Ballet. The work breaks no major new artistic ground, but has plenty of cheeky swagger and compelling rhythmic energy – In the first movement, Adams transforms, expands, and rearranges the three-note motif with which the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony opens. The second movement is far more melodic – in fact, a single melody goes through the sort of transformative process that one first hears in Adams’s works of the 1980s – and the third, the most ‘minimalist’ of the three, uses its ostinato foundation to trigger volley after volley of explosive motives and melodic fragments in a manner reminiscent more of Harmonielehre and “Nixon in China” than other of Adams’s recent works.

Jeremy Denk. Photograph: J. Henry FairThe second work, Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, was wholly successful. Interestingly, this work figured in the recent Gergiev-New York Philharmonic “The Russian Stravinsky” series, but I heard more ‘Russian’ in any given measure of the present performance that in the two frustratingly uneven programs I attended in Gergiev’s series. Adams elicited sonorities that were strongly redolent of Russian musical sounds, often reflected in the mercurial, distorted funhouse mirror of Stravinskian neoclassicism. Jeremy Denk navigated a surprisingly wide and subtle range of sonorities – for the steely, solidly rhythmic mash-up of machine-age and jazz-age sounds in the faster music, and voicing that occasionally evoked florid late Romanticism in some of the more melodic material.

Following the intermission came one of the undisputed masterpieces of European minimalism, Louis Andriessen’s De Staat, composed in 1976 and drawing on texts from Plato’s “Republic” which warn of the subversive effect of music on society – an ironic choice of text by a composer who had already garnered a reputation for works that were socially and politically critic of the ‘art music’ status quo. The work is scored for two antiphonal amplified instrumental ensembles, two electric guitars and electric bass, and four amplified female voices. During a brief interview before the performance, Adams talked about conducting the American premiere of this work, which was also programmed with Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and winds to highlight Stravinsky’s influence on Andriessen.

The opening, chorale-like passages for oboes, then trombones, then violas set a properly dour, bitter and provocative mood for a unrelenting work which offers little in the way of respite from frequently dissonant sonorities, an inexorable forward rhythmic force, and elements of jazz and (horrors!) rock-and-roll thumbing their nose at Plato’s call to ban certain scales and burn certain instruments lest they influence the state. The effect, however, can be remarkable – fascinating sonorities, almost ethereal flourishes emerging from a rigorous din, and the sung declamation of Plato’s texts which trigger sarcastic and sometimes derisive responses from the instrumental rabble. Ensemble ACJW played with force and vigor, and Adams’s clear direction and insight into the work’s sonics drove home the point of Andriessen’s aggressive, dynamic, and fascinating anti-polemic.

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