John Adams and the LSO (20 November)

Century Rolls

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

After the peculiar stage-antics the previous night with Les Arts Florissants’ “Les Jardin des Voix”, it was left to the London Symphony Orchestra to restore musical values to the uppermost at this concert, with John Adams conducting his own music. It has been something of an Adams year in London – and two of these works had been heard on this stage during the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s January Adams weekend. All of them are worthy of standard repertoire status – especially in performances such as these.

Adams is a clear, yet contained conductor; almost over deliberate in setting the beat for Lollapalooza and its rhythmic cell with a stress on the fourth syllable taken from the title, but the LSO was inspired. It is great to see that Century Rolls is coming to the repertoire of pianists other than the work’s dedicatee, Emanuel Ax. While not overshadowing Ax’s easy grace with this work, Joanna MacGregor took to the music like a duck to water – perhaps not surprising given its piano-roll inspiration and her work at transcribing Nancarrow’s piano rolls into a number of parts which she records and plays live with herself! The slow movement – Satie-esque – is also a gift to her and she obviously enjoyed the performance as much as the audience did.

It was Harmonielehre that stole the show; a gear up from Slatkin’s excellent performance with the BBCSO in January. On a day when news broke that a tanker had sunk off the Spanish coast with a potential environmental disaster ensuing, it seemed odd listening to the first movement inspired by a dream of a supertanker rising from San Francisco Bay and heading toward the sky like a rocket, but such thoughts were momentary before one got lost in the seamless thread of the musical argument.Just on one occasion in the first movement (and again toward the end of the third) you could detect undiluted minimalism with repeated rhythmic cells and bald, signposted changes of key; for the rest, Adams’s music is much more involved and complex.

The stated Schoenberg inspiration, from his harmonic treatise “Harmonielehre” from which Adams took his piece’s name, should not worry any potential listeners. The music-literate will recognise various allusions, particularly the Mahler Tenth Symphony first movement’s block chords and high trumpet in Adams’s second movement, titled ’The Anfortas Wound’. The same character as Wagner’s Amfortas (Parsifal), this medieval king was seen by Jung as the archetypal sick of soul, typifying the state of music in the year of Schoenberg’s treatise and Mahler’s death (1911). Especially notable here was Maurice Murphy’s exquisite trumpet solo.

The third movement – ’Meister Eckhardt and Quackie’ (Adams wins hands down for the weirdest titles) – builds to one of the most thrilling climaxes in modern music. As such it was a gift to the LSO – and the extra players, at least three of whom (piccolo, timpanist, one of the percussion) were from the LPO – and the audience repaid them with stunning, topped by a standing ovation for composer/conductor.

Utterly enlivening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content