Prom 62: 6th September 2001 – John Adams

Ravel
Alborada del gracioso
Satie orch. Debussy
Gymnopedies 1 and 3
Debussy orch. John Adams
Le livre de Baudelaire
John Adams
Naïve and Sentimental Music (London premiere)

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Adams

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Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 6 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It’s official, John Adams is the most frequently performed living American composer – no mean feat given the sheer number of US orchestras with resident composers and academic institutions with composer stipends, not to mention a raft of composers tapping into lucrative commercial markets. In certain new-music circles, this alone would be enough to render him hors de combat in any consideration of today’s great composers. Whilst true there is no simple correlation between artistic excellence and audience popularity, Adams, like Britten or Copland, seems to be a composer who intuitively produces a body of work which speaks to large numbers of listeners while retaining an integrity and seriousness of artistic purpose that is innovative and gently pushes music into new, undaunting territory.

Always astute to detect the zeitgeist, the Proms has in the last decade given repeated exposure to Adams’s work, culminating in this season’s Adams ’mini-theme’ (and he is the subject of next January’s BBCSO Barbican weekend). This London premiere of his latest and weightiest orchestral piece, Naïve and Sentimental Music conducted by the composer, promised – and delivered – a major musical event.

Adams wrote the 45-minute work in 1998 and 1999. The characteristically provocative title refers to Friedrich Schiller’s delineation of two distinct types of artist, which might be summarised as the instinctive and the acquired, a dichotomy which Adams says he finds more illuminating than ’modern versus post-modern’ and other commonly encountered schisms (it is in fact similar to the ’fox and hedgehog’ analogy often applied to Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle), although he notes that the possibility of a truly ’naïve’, non-referential art is more or less non-existent. From this premise, Adams has constructed a huge edifice in three movements (titled ’Naïve and Sentimental Music’, ’Mother of the Man’ and ’Chain to the Rhythm’), which articulates its philosophical theme most typically when an idea of prelapsarian simplicity is progressively overlaid and extended until it becomes a teeming saturated fabric.

This stratagem is immediately evident in the eponymous first movement. Simple chords strummed by guitar, harps and piano in regular rhythm (Common Tones in Simple Time is the title of Adams’s first orchestral work) support a guileless triadic melody on upper woodwind, highly suggestive of the 19th-century German lied. The melody soon starts to wander into more ambiguous harmonic territory and its line begins a process of gradual bifurcation as other instruments join in, all the while maintaining the gently flowing pulse of the opening bars. The movement is structured in three long arcs through the course of which the harmony becomes denser and ever more seductive, just as the textures and rhythmic patterns increase in complexity to accommodate the endlessly proliferating ’idee fixe’ melody. The movement reaches an extraordinary peroration as bells and mallet instruments come to the fore in ecstatic tintinnabulation.

The second movement is ruminates on Busoni’s Berceuse elegaique (which Adams made a reduced chamber orchestration of in 1990). This is one of Adams’s boldest conceptions. Again, a ternary structure is deployed but the soundworld is utterly different. The opening passage presents a world of preternatural stillness, a kind of articulated silence (to use Ruders’s powerful image). Into its white void drifts a gentle guitar melody, later joined by bassoon. A halo of bowed crotales and vibraphones shimmers overhead. At precisely the moment where we might begin to feel we want more than this, the music turns a corner and a disquieting passage of surging chords leads to another bell-driven climax, cutting off on a unison note (as the entire work will also conclude) to reveal the tranced moonscape of the earlier music, intact but now cushioned by low sonorous chords, until the music ebbs away into nothing. Throughout this movement, Adams seems to have discovered an astral lyricism, distilled from the American pastoral into something totally new.

The finale revisits the archetypal Adams of swirling patterns and lewd pulsing, with a strong rhythmic impetus constantly buffeted by cross-rhythms, creating the giddy sensation you experience in a boat when a change of wave direction momentarily skews the prevailing motion. It struck me afresh that the progenitor of this style of Adams’s, where percussive chords flash irregularly over a driving ostinato, is the short passage of syncopated chords over pizzicato strings near the beginning and end of the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony in three movements. (Has any composer been more influential on current musical thinking than Stravinsky?) A metrical modulation triggers the home strait – an outrageously exciting passage culminating in a gigantic pealing of rising scales which cuts off abruptly on a unison trombone crescendo. Adams cites Sibelius as an influence on his work and it was as present here in the straining upward vector of this final music as it was in the long sustained paragraphs of the earlier movements. In fact, of late, ’Sibelius’ seems to be emerging as the answer to the parenthetical question above.

This is a magnificent work, touched I think by greatness. The performance did it ample justice, even though one can imagine that it will receive even better performances as the work begins to enter the repertory of the great conductors and orchestras, as it surely will. This performance had the authority of a composer’s rendition but lacked the last degree of confidence and security in its realisation. The introspective passages registered more effectively than the exuberant ones, some of which were hampered by a sense that the meshing of the rhythmic patterns was not totally under control and by some less than wonderful brass playing.

Truth to tell, we were ready for catharsis after a somewhat underpowered first half. Alborada del Gracioso was tepid and untidily phrased. Things improved with the first of Debussy’s Satie orchestrations (a sentimental composer’s re-hearing of a naïve composer), which Adams presented as a quietly glowing minimalist object slowly turning in space. The other, more famous, Gymnopedie was not so effective (and I do regret Debussy’s struck cymbal, which brings to mind a dinner-gong at a slightly run-down Eastbourne B & B).

In his subtle and sensitive orchestration (from 1994) of Debussy’s Livre de Baudelaire, Adams omits the fifth and final song. Adams teases out the chordal piano writing of the original into a skein of figuration clothed in orchestral coloration, which brings out the songs’ post-Wagnerian chromatic harmony. Here and there, Adams supplies textures more characteristically Debussyian than the Debussy of these early songs could yet have imagined. For all their moments of passing beauty and Felicity Lott’s ravishing delivery (nowhere more so than the final phrase of the fourth song), the overall sameness of tone was rather soporific over twenty minutes. An applause-incontinent audience broke the spell after every song, as they did during the Adams.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Friday, 14 September, at 2 o’clock

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