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S & H Concert Review

Johns Earbox: John Adams at the Barbican, 18.- 20. Jan 2002 (JM)



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 and complex.

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 subversion.

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.

Jean Martin


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