John Adams

Ravel, orch. Grainger
La vallée des cloches (Miroirs)
Ives and others, orch. John Adams and William David Brohn
Songs of Ragtime and Reminiscence [European première] (Ives/Adams Down East; Cannon/Brohn Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?; Gershwin/Brohn The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag); Ives/Adams Serenity; Harris/Brohn After the Ball; Ives/Adams At the River; Berlin/Brohn Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Doctor Atomic – Easter Eve 1945 [European premiere]
The Dharma at Big Sur [European première]

Audra McDonald (soprano)

Tracy Silverman (electric violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 22 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Three distinct ‘flavours’ permeated this most interesting Prom, starting with a slice of this year’s ‘East meets West’ theme. La vallée des cloches is the last movement of Ravel’s Miroirs, and although he orchestrated much of his own piano music, including two movements of Miroirs (Alborada del gracioso and Une barque sur l’océan), he did not score Vallée. Percy Grainger’s arrangement – more like a transmogrification – utilises strings, harp and a plethora of what he termed “tuneful” (i.e. pitched) percussion as well as a piano played normally and by having the strings struck in various ways. The resultant sound is utterly remarkable, with the music taking on a whole new dimension and infused with Javanese gamelan sonorities. Some of Grainger’s arrangements are distinctly peculiar, but this one seems to have been undertaken with genuine affection and a desire to realise the many implications in the original. It was extremely well performed by the BBCSO under John Adams’s sensitive direction.

Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-tabuhan – toccata for orchestra and two pianos (John Alley and Elizabeth Burley were the adroit soloists) – is one of the first works to successfully combine genuine Balinese music in the context of the Western orchestral tradition. The traditional ideas – deriving from four- or five-note scales – become combined and interwoven, especially in the first movement ‘Ostinatos’ – which is perhaps the most successful of the three. The juxtaposition of the gamelan-like material with the sound of the ‘normal’ orchestra – albeit with an appropriately extended percussion section – is quite striking, and the rhythmic impulses anticipate some of the basic ingredients of minimalism, thirty years or so after Tabuh-tabuhan was composed in 1936. The second movement ‘Nocturne’ is launched by a lonely flute solo, most expressively played here, which makes for a degree of repose before the busy finale. The BBCSO is no stranger to this piece as they have recently recorded it with Leonard Slatkin for Chandos. Under John Adams, the BBCSO gave a sprightly performance. Just occasionally I felt the need for some sharper contours.

Then a group of American songs in orchestrations by Adams and William David Brohn was given its European première and characterfully sung by an amplified Audra McDonald, who captured the varying moods of each quite winningly. It wasn’t clear what the raison d’être for this collection is, but the songs were well chosen and contrasted and the orchestrations witty and inventive, and atmospheric in the more reflective Ives songs.

Audra McDonald returned and was heard in quite a different light in a scene from John Adams’s new opera Doctor Atomic, commissioned by San Francisco Opera and scheduled for performance there in October 2005. The opera concerns J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb by the scientists of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. ‘Easter Eve 1945’ is a soliloquy for Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty who reflects on the destruction of war and its psychological effect on America. The text is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-80) which, in the composer’s words, “moves from abject despair to an intensely moving hope for spiritual rebirth”. Adams has composed music of an expressive weight that he does not always employ. Dramatic brass opens the scene and subsequently gives way to intense string chords. The wide-ranging vocal line is replete with apt word painting. Preceding the line “All shining with life as the leaf”, a most eloquent horn solo is heard and, throughout, the accompaniment is both supportive and perceptively illustrative of the text. This is altogether a ‘tougher’ John Adams than we are perhaps used to. One the strength of this twelve-minute excerpt, the complete opera will be well worth hearing.

More familiar Adams was to be found in The Dharma at Big Sur, a concertante piece for electric violin and orchestra written for the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The perhaps slightly ambiguous title requires some unravelling – Dharma is a Sanskrit word with various meanings, ‘universal truth’ being applicable in this instance. Big Sur is a stretch of the coast road between San Francisco and LA and is also the spirit behind the book of the same name by Jack Kerouac. Additionally, Sur is a Hindu word for ‘temperament’ as in ‘tuning’, which has significance for Adams’s work as a whole since he employs a system of “just intonation” as opposed to the customary equal temperament.

The Dharma at Big Sur sees Adams re-visiting some aspects of ‘traditional’ minimalism, with its constant repetition and pulsing. These are chiefly confined to the orchestral accompaniment, whilst the soloist weaves an improvisatory-sounding line above it. The electric violin – played with considerable dexterity and flexibility by Tracy Silverman for whom the part was written – has an extended range, particularly below that of the acoustic violin. Occasionally the line descends into cello territory and then soars above. The piece is in two parts, with the first rather more lyrical than the second which gradually acquires the customary reiterative characteristics of minimalism. The ending was undeniably exciting, though it was interesting to note how Steve Reich-like some of the sonorities sounded, especially with the repeated notes on tuned percussion.

To be honest, with its somewhat formulaic construction, one felt Adams has explored this territory more inventively elsewhere. Here, as throughout the concert, the BBCSO was responsive to Adams’s purposeful and propulsive direction.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 3 September at 2.30 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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