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Second Opinion: John Adams and his City Noir

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from The Kennedy Center.

Last Thursday, American composer John Adams led the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in a program of Ottorino Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, and Adams’s own City Noir, composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered in 2009. What could possibly tie this disparate package together in a thematic way? The program suggested a progression from an Italian version of French Impressionism, to French Impressionism with a healthy dollop of American jazz, and then to a form of American Impressionism suffused with jazz.

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O.Respighi (+ C.Debussy), Pines, Fountains (+ Sea),
F.Reiner / CSO
RCA / Living Stereo

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M.Ravel, Piano Concertos,
C.Zimerman / P.Boulez / Cleveland O., LSO

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J.Adams, City Noir (et al.),
G.Dudamel / LA Phil

In any case, the playing of the National Symphony Orchestra, under Adams’s capable direction, made sense of this. The Respighi stood out for the attention to the intricacy of its orchestral detail, delivered marvelously by each section of the NSO, but most especially by the winds, the timpanists (kudos to whoever was playing the celesta) and the harpists. This luscious music shimmered in a sultry languid, ambling way until Respighi turned on the Technicolor for a full orchestral orgy. It seems at first as if Debussy is visiting Rome, and then as if Wagner and Strauss were. In either case, Adams and the NSO captured this music which, when played this well, is irresistible to anyone except, perhaps, ogres.

The sumptuous sweetness of Respighi was followed by the French champagne of Ravel, which is definitely more on the secto brut side of the palate, with wonderful snap and crackle. The music has jazz elements and also some Stravinskian rhythmic vivacity, combined with a kind of Mozartian innocence, displayed especially in the opening solo of the adagio. The pianist who premiered the work in 1932, Marguerite Long, spoke of the latter as “one of the most touching melodies which has come from the human heart.” Pianist-blogger Jeremy Denk, who played the outer movements with such clarity and sharpness, failed to capture the touching aspect of this music, its heart. He could certainly play pianissimo, but the underlying warmth seemed to be missing. The orchestra did its job well.

I’m a great believer that music should be able to explain itself. It is, after all, its own language. Therefore, aside from the assistance of program notes, I usually resent conductors or composers directly addressing the audience, which is what Adams chose to do after the intermission before beginning with City Noir. Adams told us that his composition is “a symphony that is a film noir score.” The problem is that film scores, unlike most other music, are not supposed to be about themselves, or be able to explain themselves purely in musical terms in a standalone fashion. They are illustrative. They need a film to make sense.

Perhaps that is why Adams thought it was necessary to address us, since his music is about music that is not supposed to be about itself, or is an illustration of an illustration. So what we have here is film music without a film. It was certainly hard to make sense of as a symphony. However, it contained some effective evocations of 50s noir feeling with jagged staccato rhythms, plenty of jazz and melancholic wailings on the bassoon. Like film music, it contained a lot of repetition, though this aspect the composition may be rooted more in Adams’s minimalist past than in film noir. From the evidence here, I have no trouble believing that Adams could write a very fine noir score, but I think this work will have trouble standing on its own. It was also missing what most successful movie scores have, which is a memorable main theme. On the other hand City Noir certainly benefited from a very colorful orchestration.

My disappointment was aggravated by my high regard for Adams’s work. I came expecting to like this music more. Instead, it made me think of another American composer, Michael Daugherty, who has been so successful in using popular idioms from film scores—think of his Metropolis Symphonyand from other sources in American popular culture and serving them up fresh.Daugherty can take a cliché and infuse new life in it with a great deal of élan and humor. I think this may have been what Adams was trying to do, or perhaps he was being more serious. In either case, one could not fault either his conducting or the playing of the NSO.
The program will be repeated today, Saturday, June 1.

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