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John Adams Residency, Day 1

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Fellow Traveler: Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams, Attacca Quartet

(released on March 26, 2013)
Azica ACD-71280 | 65'

available at Amazon
Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 18/2+3, Quatuor Mosaïques
John Adams is in town for a couple weeks, curating a residency at the Library of Congress this week and then serving as guest conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra next week. The first concert organized by the celebrated American composer at the Library, last night, featured the Attacca Quartet, a young string quartet that has recently recorded everything Adams has written for their combination of instruments. In charmingly self-deprecating comments before a full house, Adams described the program as a "Best Hits" selection from that disc.

These four musicians are suited to the Adams style, playing with a bristling energy, often sharp with jabbed elbows but sometimes short on reserve and subtlety. They began with seven of the nine movements, slightly reordered, from John's Book of Alleged Dances, a gutsy piece from 1994. Some of these pieces are synchronized with prerecorded tracks of music for prepared piano, which makes for an unsettling effect at times, a sort of modernist metronome that steals away the flexibility otherwise available to the performers. That seems to be part of what Adams was after, a tribute to the mechanization of music at the hands of John Cage, the piano's clicks and rattles like a "pygmy gamelan," as the composer once put it. In Alligator escalator the strings drew out scratchy tones near their bridges, with the many syncopated rhythms jarring and dance-like. The hoedown of Dogjam seemed to get a little disjointed from the recording, eventually righting itself, while the high cello passages in Pavane: She's So Fine were precariously sketchy. The compelling rhythm -- the rock anthem of Toot Nipple, and the bluesy roll of Judah to Ocean -- is impossible not to like.

The more classically oriented String Quartet, from 2008, is one of Adams's most skilful accomplishments (see my review of the recording by the St. Lawrence Quartet). The Attaccas gave each of the long first movement's contrasting sections its own zing -- singing melodies, pinging notes over repeating motifs (reminiscent of Adams's piano piece Phrygian Gates), a buzzing scherzo, a floating pianissimo passage, endless drive, glassy and serene slow bits, the delightful conclusion with mutes on, some notes glinting out of the murk. The second movement, a cranked-up wild ride, was right in the group's wheelhouse, and they gave it all the zip they could muster.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Attacca Quartet delivers first concert in John Adams series at Library of Congress (Washington Post, May 24)
While the Adams pieces were top-notch, the other two selections felt much less lived in. Adams was instrumental in organizing a commission for composer Timothy Andres, heard at the Library just last month, from the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. Andres's compact string quartet, called Early to Rise, did not all that much with a theme drawn from Robert Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe, lots of ideas with little for the ear to take hold of and with surprisingly little variation of texture (the slow section essentially just a series of vaguely tonal homophonic chords, for example). I am always glad to hear new music, but if my first hearing of this piece was also my last, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed. In a Beethoven string quartet, op. 18/2, the group had a much stronger score, of which their overly hasty and abrasive interpretation drew forth relatively little. Intonation issues and crazy elisions of the fastest passages abounded, with one bad clunker somewhere in the cello or viola in the third movement, and the second movement, which rests entirely on the cantilena of the first violinist, was just not all that lovely. Not surprisingly, a brash and athletic finale had plenty of spunk but little wry humor, ultimately sounding quite hollow.

The John Adams residency at the Library of Congress continues through Saturday, with performances at the Library and at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, all free.

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