John Adams – John’s Earbox (20th January)

Tromba lontana
Violin Concerto
The Wound-Dresser
Guide to Strange Places [BBC co-commission: UK premiere]

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

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

The final concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s John Adams weekend was conducted by the composer. Adams made an intermittently impressive debut with the BBCSO at last year’s Proms; there can be no doubting his effective and expressive, if occasionally unwieldy (batonless) technique. Tromba lontana (1986), unexpectedly if appropriately heard at the post-September 11 Last Night of the Proms, is an attractive curtain-raiser – not so much downbeat as circumspect as two distant trumpets sound out over an atmospheric backdrop of strings and percussion.

Completed in 1993, the Violin Concerto dates from soon after The Death of Klinghoffer and Chamber Symphony, a time when Adams appeared to have found a productive route out of the post-minimalist impasse. The concerto is the less compulsive of the two works, its finely-spun solo line – more an endless arabesque than a ’hyper-melody’ – dominating an orchestral contribution rich in interlocking rhythmic subtlety, but comparatively threadbare in thematic or textural interest. To be fair, Adams could have made more of the latter, which sounded accurate but earthbound in this performance. Nothing but praise, however, for Leila Josefowicz’s playing of the solo part (from memory); she captured the side-stepping bravura of the outer movements with ease, and conveyed the middle-movement Chaconne’s journey from modal translucence to diatonic clarity and back again with conviction. Yet in comparison with Ligeti’s concerto, Adams’s is definitely a work for our time – and no other.

The Wound-Dresser (1989) is in some respects Adams’s most ’American’ work, setting a heartfelt and focused text by Walt Whitman, the retrospective outcome of his experience as a nurse during the Civil War, with restraint and sensitivity. Often referred to as a latter-day counterpart to Barber’s Knoxville, the piece does not so much intensify as accumulate emotional resonance, as it passes through exquisite modulations and changes of orchestral colour. A pity that Sanford Sylvan could not have stayed on from being in Klinghoffer two nights earlier to repeat his memorable assumption of the vocal part. Christopher Maltman gave a thoughtful and attentive rendering, occasionally overtaxed by an orchestral contribution that Adams might have done a little more to pare down. In its simplicity and sincerity, The Wound-Dresser may prove Adams’s most enduring statement.

That’s a cachet the 23-minute Guide to Strange Places is unlikely to achieve. Composed only last year, this is Adams’s latest would-be subversive orchestral blockbuster-with-attitude. Numerous composers have been mentioned in connection with it – Dukas, Mussorgsky, Varese, Berlioz, Ligeti, Ives, even Birtwistle – but an overwhelming sense of tedium, alternating with dismay, set in long before the mid-point run-down of the harmonic/rhythmic process. Adams’s Stravinskian credentials have seldom been more apparent, with helpings of the ’Shrovetide Fair’ music from Petrushka at the beginning and a broken-down ’Sacrificial Dance’ (The Rite of Spring) underlying the closing pages.

Philip Clark in his programme-note states that Guide to Strange Places is “… strange, odd and delightfully contrary”. Meretricious, complacent and vacuous would be my response – the sad outcome when a gifted but undeniably middle-of-the-road composer thinks he can provoke an audience simply by fulfilling its expectations. A keen response from the BBCSO couldn’t prevent this from being a qualitative letdown to an otherwise engaging final concert.

  • Adams’s Violin Concerto is recorded on NONESUCH 7559-79360-2 (Gidon Kremer/LSO/Kent Nagano) with Shaker Loops conducted by the composer
  • The Wound-Dresser, Sanford Sylvan/Orchestra of St Luke’s/John Adams is on NONESUCH 7559-79218-2 coupled with Fearful Symmetries

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