John Adams’s Son of Chamber Symphony

Eight Lines
Son of Chamber Symphony [Dutch premiere]
Nietzsche Redet
Chamber Symphony

Ulrich Weller (voice)

Reinbert de Leeuw

Sound – Jan Panis

Reviewed by: Robert Stein

Reviewed: 9 April, 2009
Venue: Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ, Amsterdam

Reinbert de LeeuwThe Amsterdam-based Asko/Schönberg ensembles, long associated with John Adams, Louis Andriessen and indeed Schoenberg, brought its distinctively European take on Minimalist and post-Minimalist composers to its home concert hall under its veteran conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

If used to a warmer, more laid-back approach to Steve Reich, the performance of Eight Lines would have come as something of a surprise, with its harder-edged attack, and the fore-grounding of rather spiky flute and piccolo lines.

The Ensemble’s driven dexterity was more naturally suited to a particularly strange piece of Andriessen, his 1989 German-language setting of lengthy extracts from Nietzsche’s “The Will to Power”, “The Wagner Case” and other didactic considerations of the nature of music and its effect on the listener. Scored for reciter and characteristic small group of wind-dominated instruments, the accompaniment oddly but precisely mirrors each syllable of the text spoken from start to finish. As Andriessen never varies his fortissimo dynamic the effect is 18 minutes of hectoring, varied only by the occasional silent mouthing of words by Ulrich Weller, who collapses at the end in stupefied silence, which was pretty much my reaction.

John Adams. Photograph: Deborah O'GradyThe Asko usefully coupled two of John Adams’s rare forays into chamber music. Chamber Symphony (which the Asko premiered in 1993 and have played consistently since) takes Schoenberg’s 1906 work of that title (the first of two) as its starting-point, and its atmosphere preserves Schoenberg’s aggressively contrapuntal lines of equal prominence sounding off astringently in several directions at once. The Ensemble’s virtuosity was impressive, and the musicians’ calm impassivity as Schoenberg bashes into Roadrunner in the last movement makes for a furious and Ivesian ending in which keeping a straight face amid the threat of madness pays off.

Like Chamber Symphony, written 15 years earlier, Adams’s new piece, tongue-in-cheekily titled Son of Chamber Symphony sees him in a feistier, more angular attitude than the works for full orchestra. Son of Chamber Symphony was given its world premiere at the end of 2007 in the States. It has already been used as a ballet score.

Scored for an almost identical group as Chamber Symphony, ‘Son’ is also cast in the same fast-slow-fast format that Adams seems reluctant to abandon. The first movement is indebted – oddly – to Beethoven: the prominent rhythm from the ‘Choral’ Symphony’s scherzo. In the Beethoven, the timpani, brass and woodwinds exchange their rhythms to gather towards a great orchestral engine that powers the finale. In the Adams, the choppy bassoon and strings’ cross-rhythms are set aside characteristic woodwind arpeggios which supply the momentum. It has an energetic pace and the rhythms grow more complex but the first movement peters out as if it had no particular place to go.

The second movement starts off as if it’s going to be one of those free-floating arias: long meandering solos over a simple largely unvaried bass like the ‘gymnopédie’ of Naïve and Sentimental Music, but the bass unexpectedly takes the foreground for an episode – a surprise that epitomises the appeal of this new piece. The long-breathed woodwind melody is taken up by the violins, and then fades away. Not for the first time in Adams’s oeuvre the sentimental and the frenetic, European refinement and America roistering meet.

If the reflective sprit wins out in the second movement, the pushy, eager rhythms brought over from “Nixon in China” dominate the presto finale. But the woodblocks and hollow persistent bass drum which summon up the desperate politics of Nixon and Mao give Son of Chamber Symphony a bleak echo that Chamber Symphony lacks. The earlier piece’s ‘Roadrunner’ is fun; Son of Chamber Symphony has – when performed to full advantage – a pathos in its speedy finish that the earlier piece does not aspire to.

Again the Asko did not seem to bring out the piece’s subtleties: the swing-band reminiscence of the trumpet solo in the second movement, the vexations of the cut-off arpeggios in the first, or the sense of the whole enterprise speeding almost out of control in the finale. Bright and glittering though the performance was, ‘Son’ is an even bolder and richer offspring than its father.

Leave a Reply

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

Skip to content