Royal Albert Hall
Josef Haydn: Symphony No. 44 in E minor: 'Trauer'
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
Aaron Copland: Quiet City
John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
Hélène Grimaud (piano), Celia Craig (cor anglais), William Houghton (trumpet)
John Adams (conductor)
Southend Boys' Choir, Southend Girls' Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams may well currently be the most effective communicator in the English language on the subject of music, as well as being by most quantitative criteria the most successful living composer. The two things are probably connected: his works have a lucid sense of their place in the great tradition as well as a powerful humanity, often expressed through finely chosen texts. It may also not be a coincidence that Adams seems to be the conductor most adored by the Proms audience, and by London music-goers in general, after only Simon Rattle, technically a far greater conductor. Andrew Davis and a handful of other conductors have a familial, near-telepathic rapport with the Proms audience and are much loved because they and their audience normally share the same point of view. Adams and Rattle offer new, often visionary, ideas that can require reflection as well as providing pleasure.
The programme that Adams chose to frame the European premiere of On the Transmigration of Souls, his work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the anniversary of September 11, illustrates well his ability to select and package important ideas while maintaining human and purely musical interest. Haydn's Trauersymphonie would be appropriate on this programme solely because the composer is reputed to have asked for the reflective, overtly religious adagio movement to be played at his funeral. But the pounding Sturm und Drang of the outside movements and the rather stern minuet suggest a world of danger and mechanical force not really so far from Adams' music for the open road or even Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi. Bartók's third piano concerto, written in New York in 1945 when the composer knew he was dying, has a similarly spiritual slow movement, remarkably marked Adagio religioso. Its outer movements are less assertively modernist than his earlier work, a near-Brahmsian first movement and a Hungarian ethnic-romp third movement. But there are still, perhaps, hints of the life of the city in the first movement flourishes that verge on the Gershwinesque, and also of nostalgia in the third movement for a home ruined in the past few months by the destructiveness in defeat of brutal occupiers. Hélène Grimaud's performance combined delicacy and charm with strength. Aaron Copland's short, cryptic Quiet Cityis based on incidental music for a nocturnal magical realist play that was never produced. It presents a dialogue between a jazz trumpet and a more lyrical cor anglais, over a subdued background of strings, perhaps two voices trying to make contact in the city at night.
On the Transmigration of Souls begins with a recording of actual sounds of New York city at night and builds up layers of instrumental sound, of choral voices, singing texts taken from the notices looking for missing people that were posted around the city and from the New York Times obituaries of those who died, and of recorded voices reading their names. Adams has described the work as an attempt to create something like the effect of being in an ancient cathedral, with a sense of all the other souls who have felt the awe of the space in the course of history. The texts on paper are as heartbreaking as they were at the time, exposing raw pain in the simplest language, but Adams succeeds in transforming them into something spiritual. The work is so closely tied to its original context that it is not yet clear how well it will travel, but it worked powerfully in the cathedral-like Albert Hall, recalling in contemplation the extreme emotions of the day when we were all New Yorkers.