Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Naïve and Sentimental Music
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: 1 February, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Composers don’t always make the best conductors of their own music; John Adams is a case in point. Through his relationship with the LSO, he has an orchestra apparently ideally suited to his glossy, brilliant music, yet the results can sometimes be less than convincing. This second of two concerts had a dodgy start, a misfiring Short Ride in a Fast Machine that failed to pick up speed. This direct piece really needs an electric performance to give the proper propulsion to its pounding cross-rhythms, but here seemed under-rehearsed and lacking confidence.
The Violin Concerto was more secure; the piece sees Adams at his most introverted, with wide-open roads replaced in the first movement by a sense of almost claustrophobic confinement. Midori was a committed and thoughtful soloist, emphasising the anxiety of the first movement. The gauzy, nocturnal second movement chaconne was beautifully played, with subtly shaded tone colours in the orchestra. Only in the rumbustious finale did the ensemble overwhelm the soloist, her tone fraying slightly in an effort to be heard.
Better was to come, however. Naïve and Sentimental Music is John Adams’s shot at a ‘Great American Symphony’, and when played as well as it was on this occasion, the effect is convincing. The title is a typically knowing pun, the ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’ coming from Schiller’s categories of artist, rather than their pejorative modern meanings; Adams’s music has been described as both these things, justly in some cases, but here he is concerned with trying to construct an unselfconscious musical narrative.
A simple melody over strummed chords is alternated with stormy orchestral episodes, returning subtly transformed; the tale was so skilfully told, its pacing and transitions so expertly managed, that its familiarity could be overlooked. The sheer technique in Adams’s orchestral writing is breathtaking, and the LSO excelled itself in the rapt slow movement, which opens with a slow string lament surrounded by a halo of bowed percussion; beautifully placed solos followed in bassoon and steel-string guitar, with subtle pianissimo support. The finale is a characteristically hectic study in rhythm, and here Adams the conductor found the energy that had been missing from ‘Short Ride’: the orchestra resembled a machine, with great brass pendulums swinging slowly behind manic clockwork strings, the whole thing lit up by flashes of blue light from the piccolos. The concluding rumpus is over-extended, but it was impossible not to be swept along.