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More John Adams with the NSO

available at Amazon
The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings
on an American Composer
, ed. Thomas May
The final installment in John Adams’s residency at the Kennedy Center, which has featured him as composer and conductor, opened last night with mixed results. It is always interesting, for lack of a better word, to see composers conduct their own works, and this was no exception. The spoken introductory remarks to both his works on the program, The Dharma at Big Sur and Doctor Atomic Symphony, for example, were much more meaningful coming from Adams himself. However, John Adams is not the finest conductor, and the opening piece, Britten's Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", was, unfortunately, a mess.

Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, about the marginalized fisherman accused of killing his apprentice, was originally written with six orchestral interludes, four of which Britten made into an orchestral work. The music moves from hauntingly jaunty and folksy melodies to the sweeping and destructive sounds of the sea, but the orchestra was woefully out of sync. Entrances cascaded from instrument to instrument, melodies lacked internal precision, and each orchestral section seemed incongruous with the next. Of particular note were John Adams’s motions, which often seemed to correspond to a completely different work than what was actually being performed. His gestures were often large and strict when the sound issued was gentle, among other inconsistencies. Whatever the problem with the players or conductor, there was certainly a disconnect. As a result, the Britten came off as wholly disjointed and lacked any precision or color.

The musicians were redeemed, however, in the next work, Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur, which featured the brilliant Leila Josefowicz on electric violin. The juxtaposition of electric violin atop an entirely acoustic orchestra is a powerful sound and Josefowicz certainly has the chops for the piece, which is fairly non-stop for the violinist. Here, musicians and conductor finally connected in what became a beautifully rolling, raga-inspired seascape, and Josefowicz handled the part with grace and resilience. Adams’s other work on the program, the closing Doctor Atomic Symphony, was prefaced by a video of Gerald Finley, who created the role of Oppenheimer, singing the shattering aria that confronts Oppenheimer's invention and its devastating consequences. The symphony itself ends with this aria (played beautifully on the trumpet by Steven Hendrickson), built up to by eerie discordant sounds and “panic music” that captures all too well the frenetic energy surrounding the development of the bomb.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, As flawed conductor, Adams offers insights into the music (Washington Post, May 21)

Armando Bayolo, The Dharma on the Potomac (Sequenza21/, May 21)
Programmed in the middle, Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice, op. 4, showcased slightly better ensemble work than that heard during the Britten, though the piece was still lackluster and without rigor. It is unfortunate that for such a wonderfully pictorial and descriptive program all around, the results were so mixed. John Adams’s ability to lead an orchestra is questionable and all in all dissatisfying. However, Adams is a brilliant composer who can create a considerable impact, notably during the powerful and emotional conclusion of The Dharma at Big Sur. But as much deserved respect as he gets, John Adams is above all a composer, and not a conductor.

This concert will be repeated this afternoon (May 21, 1:30 pm) and tomorrow evening (May 22, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Varun said...

Yes, but ELECTRIC VIOLIN *squeal of joy*

Well put though - he is a composer first and foremost, and really foremost.

dRb said...

This review is a little unfair. Last week's concerts were beautifully conducted, in addition to being thoughtfully and intelligently programmed. It's unrigorous to proclaim Adams can't conduct good because the fifth of seven concerts was not good. I agree the Britten was all over the place, but I put the blame on the orchestra not having warmed up--and I'll note it was far better than the NSO did last time, when one of the horn players missed the curtain call and was backstage during the horn quartet in the second part.