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Stand up, John Adams

01/19/2002 -  20 January

John Adams: Chamber Symphony, Gnarly Buttons, Grand Pianola Music

Michael Collins (clarinet), Rolf Hind, Nicolas Hodges (piano)

London Sinfonietta, London Sinfonietta Voices

John Adams (conductor)

John Adams: Phrygian Gates, Road Movies, China Gates, Hallelujah Junction

Daniel Hope (clarinet), Rolf Hind, Nicolas Hodges, Sebastian Knauer (piano)

John Adams: Slonimsky's Earbox, Century Rolls, Harmonielehre

Emmanuel Ax (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

John Adams: John's Book of Alleged Dances, Shaker Loops (original septet version)

Smith Quartet, Catherine Shave (violin), Sophie Harris (cello), Corin Long (double bass)

John Adams: Lollapalooza, Five songs by Charles Ives, The Black Gondola (after Liszt's La lugubre gondola), Three Tangos by Astor Piazzolla, El Dorado

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano), Anthony Marwood (violin)

Robert Ziegler (conductor)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra

John Adams: Tromba lontana, Violin Concerto, The Wound-Dresser, Guide to Strange Places

Leila Josefowicz (violin), Christopher Maltman (baritone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's composer weekend for John Adams (which began on 18 January with a stellar performance of The Death of Klinghoffer) has the umbrella title "John's earbox". This is an allusion to the title of his 1997 work Slonimsky's Earbox, a compendium of tonalities and modalities that boxes the aural compass, just as the weekend's programme provides a 360 degree survey of Adams' work today. But Slonimsky also wrote a Dictionary of Musical Invective, ear-boxing as earbashing, and Adams had been subjected to his share of that as well. Once it was for the cheeky rudeness of the last movement of his Grand Pianola Music, more recently for the sympathetic imagination of The Death of Klinghoffer, which extends to Palestinians driven mad by injustice as well as their innocent victims. This weekend, though, Adams, who was present throughout and took part in three pre-concert discussions as well as conducting two concerts, was subjected only to a warm shower of adoration by audiences and to visible deep respect by performers. Perhaps his rather old-fashioned humanism resonates as strongly in the home city of Handel as anywhere.

It is ironic if Adams, who presents himself as a composer of big sky, magnificent rock formations and big ugly automobiles, is honoured less in his native United States than abroad. There seems to be a rule that artists have to be exiles to flourish. Martinu, the subject of a fascinating BBCSO composer weekend in 1998, shared with Adams a sense of history and ability to remake forms, looking to Bach above all, and perhaps provides a mid-twentieth century parallel to him, though he stayed with the baroque and classical where Adams looks especially to the romantics. But Martinu's works are characterized nostalgia for his lost Mitteleuropa, where Adams' often exude delight in the American physical and cultural landscape, which of course includes European musical emigrés. Perhaps outsiders feel a distance that provides a similar emotional force to loss.

Yet Adams' music is almost never painful. Almost everybody who likes music likes Adams. Sensual pleasures, of harmony, texture and rhythmic excitement that appeal to New Age types, take their place among the intellectual pleasures of musical form and historical reflection that appeal to both classicists and modernists, and a sense of fun and entertainment that appeals to everybody. In addition, the shape and context of a work are made explicit in the often amusing title, as well as in Adams' public discussion of his work: you don't have to understand composition to follow it, although you are likely to be impressed if you do.

The weekend added a further level of interest by combining most of Adams' major works (probably only El Niño was missing) in gently thematic programmes that offered genuine revisits to (not tedious repeats of) familiar works. The London Sinfonietta's Saturday afternoon concert conducted by the composer presented three smaller-scale orchestral works, each of which touched on a key theme in Adams' work: the Chamber Symphony, a cheerful encounter between Schoenberg and the music of cartoons, is Adams in parodic homage mode. Its last movement, "Roadrunner" zooms off into the wide open spaces where the big black monsters (dream automobiles that turn into pianos, apparently) of Grand Pianola Music race, accompanied by manic clarinets that lead into the clarinet concerto Gnarly buttons. Gnarly buttons, written for Michael Collins and the Sinfonietta and played with their usual virtuosity, is also a personal exploration, of the music of Adams' father, himself a clarinettist, in all its American forms. The following concert of violin and piano music in St Giles', Cripplegate continued the pianos-on-the-road idea with an intense performance of Phrygian Gates, whose title suggests at once exotic modality and standing stones or natural arches, and the UK premiere of the explicitly located Hallelujah Junction, two pianos headed in parallel towards the eponymous truck stop.

The Saturday evening concert, performed by the BBCSO conducted by Leonard Slatkin, offered a trio of retrospectives on the twentieth century. The first two works, Slonimsky's earbox and Century Rolls, both of which had their UK premieres at the Proms, had an element of play based on the comic potential of (sonic) reproduction: Slonimsky's earbox is partly a joke about reproducing birdsong using the technology of music, while Century Rolls, played with enormous humour by Emmanuel Ax, consists of the human pianist and orchestra reproducing the mechanical but edgy tones of piano rolls in a tour of twentieth-century themes. Like Slonimsky's earbox, Harmonielehre is based on a musical treatise, but Schoenberg's work of the same title summed up the romantic harmony he was leaving for dodecaphony. Slatkin and the BBCSO made Adams work romantically intense and stirring, a serious pastiche that takes off from romanticism into the blue yonder.

The closing concert, by the BBCSO conducted by Adams, consisted of the gentle fanfare Tromba lontana and one each of Adams' main genres: the Violin Concerto, The Wound-Dresser, a lyrical scena for baritone set from Walt Whitman's poem, and the UK premiere of Guide to Strange Places, a large orchestral work in pursuit of the nineteenth-century fantastic or grotesque. The young American violinist Leila Josefowicz played the concerto with great energy and commitment, at times abrasive (in contrast to Gidon Kremer's luscious sound in the recording). Christopher Maltman in The Wound-Dresser showed, as he did in Klinghoffer that he is already a great interpreter as well as a fine singer. He caught perfectly the agonized empathy of a work that Adams described in a pre-concert talk as a tribute to nursing, an evocation of nighttime sadness and practical coping with ruined flesh and blood.

Guide to Strange Places started out from works like The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Pictures at an Exhibition as an evocation of strange and monstrous things that loom in dreams. After September 11, the danger of the dark places of the mind is real and immediate, and Adams says that the work has changed as a result. It is not particularly easy listening compared to most of his other works, or to its models, but it has the surface allure of blazing colour haunted by monsters from the id stomping around. The end comes unexpectedly, something like Polyphemus' rock squashing Acis, with a noisy but soggy fizzle. The grotesque, like the romanticism explored in Harmonielehre, has been so thoroughly assimilated to conventional aesthetics by Walt Disney. Perhaps Adams has got back to something genuinely grotesque and nightmarish. Guide to Strange Places certainly cries out for a second hearing -- it is an interesting question whether nightmares are reproducible.

The final concert of the Adams weekend was also given in Paris on 22 January 2002.

H.E. Elsom



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