John Adams

My Father Knew Charles Ives
The Wound-Dresser

Eric Owens (bass)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 11 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Two surprising things: that the Royal Albert Hall was not quite as full as anticipated given that the programme comprised music of one of today’s most accessible composers and was being conducted by the composer; secondly that the notoriously tricky Royal Albert Hall acoustic seemed the ideal place to hear some of these pieces – at least from distant seating.

The concert opened with John Adams’s homage to his own father mirrored in the relationship between Charles Ives and his bandmaster father, George Edward Ives. It’s a fascinating piece, where the first movement in particular needs a somewhat cathedral-like acoustic to really allow the listener to aurally separate the many layers of the composition with their rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint. It was given a gleaming performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra whose soloists really seemed to relish their individual moments of prominence in the textures, and the brass and woodwinds were very ebullient in the band-parade sections towards the middle of the first movement. The second movement, ‘The Lake’, was particularly haunting and eerie with some fantastic oboe-playing and an amazing control of atmosphere, tension, and impressionist effect. The last movement with its energetic middle section and meditative ending bought the piece to a magical close.

“The Wound-Dresser”, Adams’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, has received numerous performances, and it is a piece that makes a strong impact on first hearing, not least because the text is somewhat graphic and emotional; a work to admire rather than like, and this performance rather reinforced that verdict. As an operatic composer with, at the time of composition, the success of “Nixon in China” behind him Adams is adept at matching words and music to dramatic effect, in this case often adopting a rather unobtrusive support to the vocal line. Here the soloist was the American bass Eric Owens, who has a big and attractive voice, more interesting and richly coloured at the top of his range than at the bottom. Initially his words were a little indistinct, but towards the end of the work where the melodic line is more declamatory and the accompanying textures more spare they came through more clearly.

Harmonielehre, its context Schoenbergian, has a brilliant first movement, a dramatic and tense Mahlerian middle one, and a hectic, joyous and life-affirming finale. Adams conducted a very dramatic performance, and the orchestra demonstrated a wide dynamic range. I had not registered before how similar the mood of the first movement is to the opening orchestral passages of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder”, which really struck on this occasion with the glittery woodwind and percussion figures contrasting against the long arching themes on the strings. The complex second movement was tellingly argued, again benefiting from the spacious acoustic. The strings, so important in this movement, wrung the motion from the score with suitably full and, occasionally, astringent tone. The helter-skelter of the bubbly and rhythmic finale was wonderfully propulsive right up to its exhilarating end with heavy staccato chords interrupting and injecting some real tension into the orchestral flourish.

It would then have been good to take a ‘short ride in a fast machine’ home – but alas the London underground was all that was available!

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