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BSO and Adams and That Other Guy

This week, composer John Adams is conducting the concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard Friday evening in a not so full Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. For good or ill, new music director Marin Alsop was the draw for the large audiences last week. Judging by the inordinate grumbling from older patrons seated near me, many people stayed away because of Adams, although in the spectrum of living composers, his music is hardly daunting. Appearing first with a microphone, Adams honored the title of this series of concerts, "The Composer in His Own Words" (although he joked that composers "write music so we don't have to explain ourselves"), by introducing the two pieces he was conducting on the first half. He has conducted both works on recordings from around the time each was premiered.

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Fearful Symmetries / The Wound-Dresser, Orchestra of St. Luke's

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The Dharma at Big Sur / My Father Knew Charles Ives, BBC Symphony Orchestra
It is always enlightening to hear a composer conduct his own music. It may not end up being the most loved or even best interpretation of that music, since creative distance makes objective and innovative approaches more possible, ideas that the composer may be unwilling or even unable to see. Under Adams, the BSO gave sure and loving performances of these two extremely personal works. Last week's Adams offering, Fearful Symmetries was very much in the mature Adams-minimalist style, sounding akin to Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, for example. My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003), a tribute to the composer's father and his common heritage in New England with Charles Ives, is a more neo-Romantic work with fewer minimalist techniques. A motivic element in this three-movement symphonic poem is metallic percussion, whose tinkling sounds evoke a nostalgic past. A carnival atmosphere of parades and near cacophony reigned in the first movement ("Concord"), with the sound of bands so important to the education of the young Ives and Adams.

The second movement, a nocturne titled "Lake" (after Lake Winnipesaukee), combined a beautifully played Japanese-style oboe solo, with the microtonal bends of the traditional shakuhachi, and nicely incorporated swing sounds from the brass section echoing across the lake from a bandstand. Not acknowledged by Adams, however, were definite echoes of Britten's Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The climax of the third movement ("Mountain") was disappointingly non-transcendent. Even more welcome than this relatively new work was the chance to hear The Wound-Dresser, from 1988, sung by baritone Sanford Sylvan, for whom it was composed. Set to some of the words from the devastating Civil War poem by Walt Whitman, written when he served as a caregiver to wounded troops in the makeshift hospitals here in Washington, the piece is a somber, extended orchestral song. Using a reduced orchestra, Adams focuses on static string sounds, featuring luminous violin solos from associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins (Jonathan Carney is away this week). Sanford Sylvan is not the most luscious baritone voice around, but he sang with clarity of text and great emotion.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Composed and provocative (Baltimore Sun, October 4)

Tim Smith, Adams conducts, invigorates (Baltimore Sun, October 6)

Mark J. Estren, John Adams, Conducting Himself Admirably (Washington Post, October 6)
"The other guy on the second half," as Adams joked, was Ludwig van Beethoven, whose seventh symphony Adams chose as the complement to his own music. The composer's remarks on the symphony focused on Beethoven's discovery of an "ecstatically percussive" style through the medium of the newly created pianoforte. Not surprisingly, Adams often conducted the piece as if he were hammering out a metal sheet, creating a viscerally exciting but hardly subtle rendition that steamrollered over many of the piece's fine touches. The brisk tempo Adams imposed on the Poco sostenuto section of the first movement did not gel, followed by an explosive Vivace. The second movement grew to a full sound too quickly and was always forward-moving, impelled past any awareness of shifts between sections. This approach worked well for the third movement, where the repeated motifs were treated with rigid, minimalistic evenness. In the fourth movement, however, which is marked only Allegro con brio, the fast tempo reduced many of the notes to mush. The BSO, which in general sounded extremely confident and assured in this challenging concert, can indeed play the Beethoven 7th that fast and abrasively -- but why?

The parade of living composers at the BSO continues in next week's concerts, with Tan Dun conducting his own music and a Russian program (at Strathmore on October 11 and in Baltimore on October 12 to 14). Tan Dun will speak to the audience in the Composers in Conversation series on Wednesday at the Meyerhoff (October 10, 7:30 pm).

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