John Adams at 70 – Britten Sinfonia/Benjamin Shwartz – Chamber Symphony & Grand Pianola Music, Timo Andres’s Steady Hand, Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion

John Adams
Chamber Symphony
Timo Andres
Steady Hand [world premiere]
Philip Glass
Music in Similar Motion
Grand Pianola Music

Timo Andres & David Kaplan (pianos)

Synergy Vocals

Britten Sinfonia
Britten Sinfonia Academy
Benjamin Shwartz

Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran

Reviewed: 25 February, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John AdamsRecently London concertgoers have been treated to a feast of American contemporary music celebrating the eightieth-birthdays of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Now it’s the turn of the junior giant, John Adams, whose 70th-birthday was on February 15.

Adams’s Chamber Symphony opened this Britten Sinfonia programme, a quizzical synthesis in homage to his teachers and the genius of Arnold Schönberg, layered with comic and grotesque effects inspired by classic cartoon capers. The playing immediately captured the delicate and complex soundworlds evoked in ‘Mongrel Airs’, where rowdy clarinet and virtuosic violins sparred. ‘Aria with walking bass’ brings lush and chromatic writing for gorgeous combinations including double bass and bassoon with brass overlay, the mood shifting from playful to ominous. This demanding and rewarding listen was given with energy and stunning attention to detail under Benjamin Shwartz.

Timo Andres is an interpreter of Glass’s piano music and a disciple of Adams. Andres’s new piece Steady Hand has a clear relationship with their compositional styles and could be a contextual cousin of Adams’s Grand Pianola Music and opens with a simple theme for one piano in conversation with the second piano. The orchestra barely joins them until halfway through with a melancholy descending chorale. The second movement, ‘Bruckner Boulevard’, by contrast builds to fortissimo from repetitive piano figures and rippling woodwind. Andres and David Kaplan played with telepathic success.

Benjamin ShwartzPhotograph: Larry GarfThe students of the Britten Sinfonia Academy joined for Glass’s Music in Similar Motion (1969). Orchestrated in 1981 this piece is typically of rhythmic pulses with slight tonal variations. The characteristic arpeggios are expressed initially with the orchestra playing in unison. Bass clarinets plumb the depths and the hypnotic rhythm is reiterated by synthesisers and marimbas. Brass highlights in octaves punch out the progressions and Shwartz remained almost motionless. Does this piece need a conductor or just someone to count the units? There is little nuance in this music or room for expression until the final crescendo.

Grand Pianola Music, by contrast, is an expansively beautiful work, rhythmically challenging and hypnotic, performed with finesse and power. Andres and Kaplan brought out every detail of the piano-writing from lush romanticism to the shimmer of the American Highway. The opening repetitive figure gains depth, texture and personality as it progresses, saw, woodwinds and vocals intensifying onward propulsion with moments of tranquillity and questioning. The heroic nature of the piece is evident in the third movement ‘On the dominant divide’, played with heart and precision and with a gaudy, irresistible theme. Synergy Vocals added siren-calls, layering urgent sound and soul.

  • Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Monday February 27 at 7.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)

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