LSO/John Adams – Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky & City Noir

Debussy, orch. Colin Matthews
Two Préludes – Le vent dans le plaine; Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Concerto for Piano and Wind
City Noir [European premiere]

Jeremy Denk (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John Adams. Photograph: Deborah O'GradyThe second of John Adams’s latest concerts with the London Symphony followed a not so different trajectory to the previous one, a first half of works no doubt close to his heart followed by a recent symphonic work of his own.

Whether or not one agrees in principal, Colin Matthews’s orchestration of Debussy’s Préludes offers a fresh angle on some of the most significant music from the early twentieth-century. This concert brought a ‘windy’ brace of these – with the restless quiet of ‘Le vent dans le plaine’ followed by the visceral energy of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’, though the resourcefulness of the former did not benefit from the ‘jog-trot’ rhythm imparted to its underlying motion, while the immediacy of the latter was rendered unsubtle by Adams’s generalised direction.

It was a not dissimilar story in the Ravel. Valses nobles et sentimentales is hardly a piece given to overstatement, but there was little else on offer in an opening section that was blatant to a fault. The numbers that follow were briskly dispatched with little thought as to their dance stylisation or the motivic ingenuity which binds the sequence together. The climactic section was served up with not so much a sniff as lashings of greasepaint, while the epilogue lacked much in the way of inner intensity. Memories of a reading the LSO gave with Pierre Boulez some years ago were not outfaced.

Jeremy Denk. Photograph: J. Henry FairIf part of the problem stemmed from Adams’s seeming inability to ‘read’ the Barbican acoustic (not the easiest to deal with, admittedly, yet he is hardly a stranger here) so that the orchestral sound yielded any real perspective, this was less of a problem in the Stravinsky. Although the Concerto for Piano and Wind ranks among his most determinedly didactic works, there is more than a semblance of humour in the first movement’s deadpan introduction leading to a headlong toccata. A pity, then, that Jeremy Denk rather let the former pass him by and that his cast-iron technique was not always allied to co-ordination with the orchestra in what ensued. In this respect the finale went a good deal better, but again the mock-solemnity of its ‘epitaph’ was not ideally contrasted with the nonchalant pay-off of the closing bars. The hieratic slow movement came off best, not least in a final section which drew from the music a poignancy of which the composer might not willingly have admitted.

After the interval, a first hearing on this side of the Atlantic for City Noir. John Adams has never written symphonies as such, but his orchestral output is informed by works having a scope and ambition that might be thought symphonic. Hence the present piece – inspired by the aura and imagery of those B-movies and TV series that conjure a vivid if far from flattering portrait of Los Angeles during the immediate post-war decades. Add to this a healthy dose of the ‘symphonic jazz’ inimical to the city’s cultural evolution (Hollywood’s in particular) and the basic premise of City Noir falls into place.

Formally the work is quite straightforward. After an imposing ‘wide-screen’ introduction, the first movement, ‘The City and its Double’, alternates between brash yet intricate music redolent of earlier Bernstein and a more suave idea that might have graced a symphony by William Schuman from the period in question – the two types of music heading to an all-out climax before fragmenting into its successor. Titled ‘The Song is for you’, this builds from a blues-inflected melody for alto saxophone (Simon Haram in his element here) to take in other wind solos on the way to a powerful culmination – quite the best such movement Adams has yet written. The finale has to be in direct contrast and, after a suitable pause, ‘Boulevard Night’ obliges with a surging energy – touched off and periodically informed by a plangent trumpet tune – that carries all before it on the way to a raucous denouement.

If this latter sounds like a reinvention of the ‘Mambo’ from “West Side Story”, it could be just that given it was written for Gustavo Dudamel in his first season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hard to believe, even so, that the latter brought the same panache to it as the LSO did here, in a performance met with instantaneous applause. Whether this music has the (unanticipated) durability of its cinematic inspiration is another thing: rather the comparison might be with many a CNN report, in that City Noir sets out the immediate issues without worrying unduly about the bigger picture.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 17 March at 7 p.m.
  • LSO
  • Barbican

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