The annual mini festivals at the Barbican are
a wonderful opportunity to get an in-depth experience of a composer.
This year it was the American John Adams turn. Adams began his career
as a so-called minimalist with Phrygian Gates (1977). In the
concentrated and fluid performance by Rolf Hind this piece still
retains its original freshness after 25 years. The other piece which
confirmed Adams stature as an important new voice was Shaker Loops
(1978), which was performed with great precision - essential for the
trance-like quality of the piece - by the Smith Quartet and friends.
The weekend started off with Adams’ controversial
opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1990), unfortunately only in
a concert performance. It is a great piece with a poignant political
edge. The London audience, in the packed Barbican Hall, loved the piece,
even though one music lover told me she found the anti-Israel bias upsetting.
But Alice Goodman, the librettist, managed to sustain ambiguity,
taking side neither for the Palestinians nor the Israelis. Adams and
Goodman were able to show the suffering and emotions of both parties
of the eternal conflict. This is great art!
The performance was of the highest standard. Right
from the start the BBC Singers where overwhelming. Leonard Slatkin lead
the huge forces safely through the score. Among the wonderful singers
Christopher Maltman as the captain with his warm, round and sad
voice gave a the opera a tragic edge (and again in the accomplished
piece The Wound Dresser,1988-9). Kirsten Blase with her
clear voice brought fun and irony into the play. Jeffey Lloyd-Roberts
as the Palestinian Molqi was impressive with his angry outbursts. The
sound amplification by Sound Intermedia was sometimes too exaggerated
and I found the cheap reverb irritating.
The Death of Klinghoffer is a complex, ambiguous
piece which touches current sensibilities and is thought provoking.
Once a composer has become famous, i.e. has been in
synchronicity with the Zeitgeist, he can indulge more in his personal
interests. The Violin Concerto (1993) and the BBC co-commission
Guide to Strange Places (2001) have this quality. I find it peculiar
to write a violin concerto at the end of the 20th century with the traditional
setup of soloist and accompanying orchestra. The relationships between
the individual and society have become more complex - to use a metaphor.
In the first part of the piece the orchestra is degraded
to an oversized guitar endlessly plonking away with pizzicato chords.
Despite the brilliant performance of Leila Josefowicz, violin,
who mastered the difficult score with ease and playfulness, the Violin
Concerto didn’t touch me.
The piece Guide to Strange Places for large
orchestra picks up elements from the Chamber Symphony, which
was performed by the London Sinfonietta on Saturday in their usual perfection.
In the second half of Guide to Strange Places Adams resorts to
a relentless, even pulse wandering through the colours of the orchestras.
This is mechanical music, machine-like, which doesnąt create emotions.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Adams literally worked
their way through this rough score. The first half is more differentiated
Adams has a good sense of humour. In Grand Pianola
Music (1981-2) with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Adams himself,
he mocks both Modernism and sentimental popular music. With true post-modern
irony Adams manages to incorporate both the original forms and their
The BBC, its wonderful BBC Symphony Orchestra and
BBC Singers and all the other ensembles staged a great weekend in the
Barbican. It provided a unique opportunity to get a near complete overview
of the composer John Adams. As Adams said to an enthusiastic music lover
in the foyer: it is only possible in London.