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John Adams Back with the NSO

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J. Adams, City Noir (inter alia), Los Angeles Philharmonic, G. Dudamel
John Adams is coming to the end of his latest visit to Washington: after a four-day residency at the Library of Congress, he is taking the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra this week. As with previous guest stints in the area, with the NSO in 2010 and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, he paired one of his own pieces with music by other composers. The results fell out in similar ways last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with the expertise of the composer conducting his own work being of interest but his limitations as a conductor leaving a mixed impression.

The highlight was the chance to hear Adams conduct his relatively new piece, City Noir, composed for and premiered by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 and performed here by the NSO for the first time. Adams conducted the piece last summer at the Proms, and he tried to wring every ounce of energy he could from it here. Taking the microphone, he described the work as an homage to Hollywood and film noir scores, but where film composers have to write compactly, to create an entire atmosphere in a brief time, Adams luxuriates in each texture, seeming to do less with more, as it were, much of it forgettable. One could imagine stock movie scenes corresponding to each section: the big sweep of the opening for the opening credits; a jazz section with hot saxophone solo, drums, and pizzicato bass setting the tone; a tender theme for violins con sordini for the entrance of the heroine; a murder in the dark of night in the second movement, against a backdrop of sirens and wailing horns; a California cool trumpet solo and the chug-chug-chugging of a locomotive in the third movement. With such a large orchestra, it seemed like the score should have had greater variation of color, but there was a busy sameness to it -- for all the percussion crammed at the back (20 tuned gongs!), one noticed it almost not at all.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, John Adams roots himself in tradition, but on his own terms (Washington Post, May 31)
Although it ended with Los Angeles, the concert opened with Rome, in a suave performance of Ottorino Respighi's Fontane di Roma. Four of the city's most famous fountains were evoked, from the placid, rolling, slightly lazy sound of the Valle Giulia, with its lush strings, to the crashing swell of the Triton, the celesta twinkles of the Trevi, and the tolling bell in the distance behind the Villa Medici as the sun sets. Respighi used his large orchestra more brilliantly than Adams did, and there are many effects in there that were stolen by later Hollywood composers. In between was Ravel's bluesy, saccharine G major piano concerto, with Jeremy Denk as soloist (last heard, inevitably, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet). The concerto was probably the work most at risk of causing trouble for a sub-standard conductor, and there were a few slipshod moments. Mostly the piece lacked an edge, a distinctive vision, other than what Denk and the musicians worked out together. The tender second movement seems easy on the surface but is difficult to pull off -- is it emotions on the sleeve or something enigmatic like Satie's Gnossiennes? Whatever it might have been, this performance left me bored, even the "dizzy fingers" stuff in the third movement, given plenty of improvisatory spin by Denk.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (May 31 and June 1), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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