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John Adams Residency, Day 3

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Adams, Son of Chamber Symphony, ICE, J. Adams
John Adams has not done himself any favors during his residency this week at the Library of Congress. In his programming of the first three concerts, he has put his own music up against the titans of the 20th century: Béla Bartók and Leoš Janáček for Road Movies, and last night it was Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg sandwiching his Son of Chamber Symphony. On one hand, as Adams himself acknowledged, only a fool would give himself that kind of competition, but on the other hand setting a high bar made the overall result of these concerts that much better.

Adams has been particularly blessed in his choice of performers, especially Jennifer Koh and last night's featured group, the International Contemporary Ensemble. Adams did the honors at the podium, but frankly these expert musicians could likely have done just as well in this repertoire without a conductor. They turned in thrilling accounts of two gigantic masterpieces of the modern period, beginning with Stravinsky's Grande Suite, the music for L'Histoire du Soldat. It is in many ways the preferable way to listen to this work, without the possibly silly story of the devil and the soldier, as in the last performance of the work under review. Certainly, this was a superior performance musically, too, with the fine violinist Jennifer Curtis taming the demanding solo part in the "Trois Danses" movement, the mesmerizing pairing of clarinet and bassoon in the "Pastorale," and a careful attention to balance and the scope of the room's acoustic throughout. The acerbic triumph of the march movements was rendered with plenty of clatter, right down to the chilling all-percussion conclusion.

Schoenberg's first Kammersymphonie (op. 9), which featured on the notorious Skandalkonzert on March 31, 1913, in Vienna, was the other giant in the room. It is hard to imagine this often urbane, even harmonically lush work causing protests or a brawl -- Alban Berg's Altenberg-Lieder were apparently the straw that broke the camel's back -- because now one admires it principally for its range of textures, harmony, tempo, and character and for the symphonic scope that Schoenberg achieved with just fifteen solo instruments and no percussion. Its principal theme -- a series of rising fourths that often resolve into (gasp!) a major chord -- these days always sounds like perhaps the most famous appropriation of quartal writing, the theme for the television series Star Trek by Alexander Courage.

My estimation of the Adams work featured here, Son of Chamber Symphony, has not changed much since I reviewed the recording made by John Adams and the ICE a few years ago. My reservations were brought into relief here by the juxtaposition with the Schoenberg, which Adams acknowledged was the inspiration for his two chamber symphonies. The Adams is a virtuosic tour de force, which the ICE nails firmly on the head in an often brain-spinning way, but it achieves much less in terms of color and variation. Lots of noodling around, lots of accents that shift the sense of meter (Stravinsky's influence is more important there), and a seemingly breathless continuity in the outer movements. It is thrilling to hear in a performance this good, but like a meringue it ends up leaving one with little substance or nourishment.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Composer John Adams leads an evening of music for the mind, if not the heart (Washington Post, May 27)
Even less impressive was the new work, La forma dello spazio by Canadian composer Zosha di Castri (b. 1985), a trifle of less than ten minutes that played around with the performance space, I guess, by having the clarinetist and flutist placed at the back of the auditorium. Clusters of various kinds arose at the front and were taken up behind the listener, with some instrumental effects (plucked piano, a credit card used on the cello's strings, air blown through the flute tonelessly, a rattle of some kind attached to the pianist's ankle) layered on top of them. Some hair-raising microtonal sounds and glissandi were mildly interesting, and there was an early entrance by the violinist (corrected by Adams, although it didn't really make any difference), but in the one end one wondered exactly what Adams heard in the piece to champion it in this way.

1 comment:

Pianist said...

I agree with you, Adam's work hasn't progressed much.