John Adams – 19th January Concerts

John’s earbox
The music of John Adams
18-20 January 2002, London

Chamber Symphony
Gnarly Buttons
Grand Pianola Music

Michael Collins (clarinet), Rolf Hind & Nicolas Hodges (pianos), London Sinfonietta Voices, London Sinfonietta conducted by the composer

19 January 2002, Barbican Hall, London

Phrygian Gates
Road Movies
China Gates
Hallelujah Junction [UK premiere]

Daniel Hope (violin) & Sebastian Knauer (piano); Rolf Hind & Nicolas Hodges (pianos)

19 January 2002, St Giles, Cripplegate

Slonimsky’s Earbox
Century Rolls

Emanuel Ax (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin
19 January 2002, Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 19 January, 2002

Whatever one’s reactions to John Adams’s music, and mine over this weekend ranged from the enthusiastic to the unmoved, it has to be acknowledged that there are not many living composers whose work generates such enthusiasm.

That Adams is a man of genial character, one with a sense of humour and a willingness to talk at length about his work, and that he has enormous patience with the seemingly never-ending waves of people wanting to shake his hand and get his autograph, no doubt played its part too. His music is up-front, rhythmic, accessible, colourful and written so that although it stretches players and provides a winning demonstration of their virtuosity, it never goes that one step beyond.

It is left to me to comment on the (very full) Saturday of this Adams extravaganza. The London Sinfonietta has worked with Adams on many occasions and clearly revels in his demands in the zany Chamber Symphony of 1992, one his very best pieces. The combination of Schoenberg’s (First) Chamber Symphony and cartoon music seems unworkable, yet Adams fashions it all with his unmistakable instrumental inventiveness – some of the displaced rhythms and scurrying, canonic scale passages resemble Ligeti at his most frantic; Adams’s command of counterpoint is nothing short of staggering. The Sinfonietta, as soloists and an ensemble, negotiated the teeming notes and the composer’s undemonstrative direction totally brilliantly.

Michael Collins was similarly striking in the clarinet concerto Adams wrote for him in 1996. Gnarly Buttons required a reduced London Sinfonietta in terms of personnel, though the addition of Steve Smith, who alternated between banjo, guitar and mandolin, added some distinctive tones. Gnarly Buttons is one of Adams’s works that leaves me rather cold. As always the instrumentation is ingenious but the material is less distinctive and memorable; it comes close to outstaying its welcome. This is especially true of the last movement, which suddenly comes back to life with veiled references to Copland’s concerto. The rendition left nothing to be desired and the audience did not share my indifference.

Grand Pianola Music requires a much larger ensemble plus two pianos and three voices – Sarah Eyden, Susan Flannery and Judith Rees. This classic and infamous piece is one of Adams’s earliest acknowledged scores, completed in 1982. Beforehand, the composer gave a disarming, witty introduction, almost apologising for the piece – but not quite; I think he regards it more as one of his unruly children. Unruly it is – vulgar, gaudy, cheap … enormous fun! Someone told me that he hadn’t heard the piece for fifteen years (the famous occasion at the Huddersfield Festival that almost caused a mass walkout) and though he enjoyed it, he didn’t want to hear it again for a while. I know how he feels – but it stays irritatingly in the memory. This performance brought the house down; Nicolas Hodges and Rolf Hind powered their way through the piece, particularly the barnstorming finale with its outrageous ’big tune’, and looked as if they where having a ball, as were the composer and the Sinfonietta.

An hour or so later, another ’returns-only’ event took place in St Giles, Cripplegate, this time featuring Adams’s music for piano, two pianos, and violin and piano. Once more the highlight featured Messrs Hind and Hodges – the UK premiere of Hallelujah Junction. This performance had the composer leaping out of his seat to congratulate the players almost before the last note had died away. Rightly so! Hind and Hodges are two of the brightest British pianists around who devote almost all their time to playing new music of, shall we say, a slightly more modernist nature. Putting them together is a combination that should have concert-promoters clambering to engage them. The duo negotiated the fiendish cross-rhythms of Hallelujah Junction with the ease of a five-finger exercise.

Earlier, Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer gave a rather restrained, too careful if accurate account of Road Movies, a close relative of Chamber Symphony; the acoustic of St Giles did not help their cause. Adams’s solo-piano pieces made for the two most uninteresting of the day. Thankfully, one was short, five minutes; China Gates is intended for amateur performers, but was given a thoroughly professional rendition by Hodges. Hind’s of the 25-minute Phrygian Gates, even allowing the superb performance, was one of the longest twenty-five minutes I have ever spent. Again, I was in the minority.

Twenty-four hours after The Death of Klinghoffer, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin returned to the Barbican for a second evening in the company of a large and enthusiastic audience. Slonimsky’s Earbox pays tribute in a particularly splashy and impressive way to Nicolas Slonimsky, the Russian-American conductor and musicologist who made a great impression on Adams and who died in 1995 aged 101. The piece is littered with references to Stravinsky; it begins like the older master’s The Song of the Nightingale. Other references – melodic, rhythmic, harmonic – are not so obvious in this hyperactive 13-minute tour-de-force of quite stunning orchestral virtuosity, the sort of thing Adams excels in. The orchestra, helped by the Barbican Hall’s new acoustic, which now makes such a difference in complex works like this, was on blistering form.

Adams’s piano concerto, Century Rolls, was written for Emanuel Ax. (Ax seems to be one of the few big-name soloists who commissions works and continues to play them after the premiere.) Ax is unquestionably a notable pianist, and though there are many great moments in the piece, it doesn’t quite come together. Although I was without a score, there appeared to be one or two anxious passages. Ax has played Century Rolls many times, but Adams’s music has so many dangerous rhythmic corners that a bit more rehearsal might have been in order. As in Ax’s Nonesuch recording (with Dohnanyi) there was something a little stilted about the solo playing – the cascades of notes were managed with finesse, there was real poetry in the slow movement with its references to Satie; missing was that final degree of swing and crazy abandon that drives the music on.

There’s only one word to describe the performance of the 40-minute Harmonielehre: spectacular. Rarely have I heard the BBCSO play with such dedication, precision and sheer beauty of sound. I have no idea what the orchestra thought of the piece – I’m not entirely sure what I think of it either – but the musicians gave the impression that they were sat on the edge of their collective seats. This was a real triumph for the orchestra and its principal conductor – without doubt one of the finest things it has done under Slatkin’s baton to date. The pounding chords at the beginning of ’Part One’ were powerful in themselves; to hear the music gather even more momentum and energy, heightened by Adams’s judicious pacing and Slatkin knowing exactly when to ease off and push forward, was overwhelming. The slow movement, ’The Anfortas Wound’, reached new levels of tension – from the opening growls in the double basses to a beautifully played trumpet solo through to the anguished triads that signal the cataclysmic Mahlerian climax; every detail was clear and devastating in its impact.

At this point, it was not clear how the orchestra would getthrough the roller-coaster finale, ’Meister Eckhardt and Quackie’. Adams’s dreams are extraordinary. ’Part One’ of Harmonielehre was inspired by one of a super-tanker launching itself into the sky out of San Francisco Bay; ’III’ by an image of his daughter (nicknamed Quackie) riding on the shoulders of a medieval mystic. So now we know! The players found unlimited amounts of stamina and gave as much energy if not more to the final part, which brought a gathered yell of delight and a standing ovation that is a rare occurrence at London concerts. The composer was overcome and showed his delight to further roars of approval.

I heard no dissenting voices then; since the concert I have heard some. Of Harmonielehre this was as good a performance as one would get anywhere at any time. As for the piece – well, once one has got over the immediate impact and Adams’s breathtaking use of the orchestra, I am not sure how much remains, at least as far as ’Part III’ is concerned. The building of harmonic and rhythmic tension can be too predictable and extended. For me, Adams’s genius is for up-beat, show-stopping scores like Slonimsky’s Earbox and, an odd omission from the weekend, The Chairman Dances; not so much the would-be searching profundities.

Having not heard Adams’s new Guide to Strange Places, which was by all accounts rather uncharacteristic, I wait to be converted. However, from the performance point of view and audience reaction, “John’s earbox” was a huge success.

Grand Pianola Music & Chamber Symphony – NONESUCH 7559-79219-2 Chamber Symphony & Shaker Loops - RCA 09026 68674 2 Harmonielehre – EMI CDC 5 55051 2

  • Grand Pianola Music & Chamber Symphony – NONESUCH 7559-79219-2, London Sinfonietta conducted by John Adams
  • Chamber Symphony & Shaker Loops, Ensemble Modern/Sian Edwards; Phrygian Gates played by Hermann Kretzschmar – RCA 09026 68674 2
  • Slonimsky’s Earbox (Halle/Nagano) & Century Rolls (Ax/Cleveland/Dohnanyi) on NONESUCH 7559-79607-2
  • Harmonielehre – CBSO/Rattle – EMI CDC 5 55051 2

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