S & H INTERNATIONAL
Tchaikovsky, Hilary Hahn, violin; San Francisco Symphony, Michael
Tilson Thomas, conductor. Davis Symphony Hall, San Francisco, May 4, 2003
John Adams' father did not literally know Charles Ives, but, as Adams
suggested with a wry smile in a pre-concert interview, "He could have."
The bristly New Englander Ives, whose lifespan overlapped his father's
by several decades, served as inspiration for the New England-born Adams
in "My Father Knew Charles Ives," the first of four commissions over 10
years from the San Francisco Symphony. The piece had its premiere in the
San Francisco Symphony's subscription concerts this past week, and will
be repeated at several performances in the orchestra's European tour,
including May 7 in Dublin and May 9 at the Barbican in London.
The fathers of both composers were modestly successful businessmen who
pursued music as a sidelight and introduced their sons to the world of
music. As a boy, Adams played clarinet in a town band in Concord, New
Hampshire, sitting next to his father, who had come to town with a second-tier
jazz band and stayed to marry a local lass.
The title is Adams' way of signalling that this is an autobiographical
piece, as he puts it, "my own Proustian madeleine, only with a Yankee
flavor." Its three movements are titled "Concord," "The Lake" and "The
Mountain," a pointed reference to Ives' "Three Places in New England,"
which it nods to repeatedly in form and content. "Concord" is also the
name of Ives' most famous piano piece, the Concord Sonata, only Adams'
Concord is in New Hampshire, about 90 miles north of Ives' Concord, Mass.
If the musical connections seem tenuous between Adams, America's best
known contemporary composer, and Ives, a virtual unknown until Leonard
Bernstein championed his music decades after he had written it, this piece
puts it all into perspective. Over its 27 minutes, the musical language
moves from a frank pastiche of Ives in the first movement to a virtual
sonic tour of Adams' musical development in the finale, that movement
tinged only with subtle references to Ives. It's a terrific piece, and
it got passionate initial readings from the orchestra under conductor
Michael Tilson Thomas, himself an Ives devotee and the composer's most
articulate champion today.
The first movement will delight anyone who knows Ives' music, alternately
emulating and then sending up Ives' penchant for clashing meters, marching
band sounds that come in and out of focus, quotations of music familiar
to American listeners, and searing dissonances cheek-by-jowl with lush
chords. For Adams, whose music recently has become much more complex harmonically
than that of his early days as an avowed minimalist, this is a natural
progression, taken to an extreme. He opens with a lush chord in the strings,
punctuated with staccato utterances of the same notes in the winds and
percussion, a dazzling effect that takes inspiration from the misty opening
measures of Ives' "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." Once this bed has been
laid, a long trumpet solo emerges (gorgeously articulated by principal
trumpet Glenn Fischtal). The music becomes increasingly layered, until
it finally breaks out into a full-fledged parade of clashing bands. Sharp-eared
listeners will laugh out loud at some of the inside compositional jokes.
In one obvious but wry touch, a piccolo obbligato vaguely reminiscent
of the one in Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" derails.
The middle movement is an impressionistic nocturne. It begins with a perfect
evocation of a lakeshore at night, with wavelets slapping at the shore
and insects chirping irregularly. Jazz band sounds waft quietly from across
the shore. Through it all, Adams weaves a long, achingly beautiful oboe
solo, perfectly designed for the orchestra's principal, William Bennett.
The finale steps up the pace, generating a series of minimalist-driven
crescendos from variations on the first movement's trumpet solo. There's
very little Ives and a lot of Adams in this music. The unspecific "mountain"
in the title has personal meaning for Adams, who has a home in the mountains
of Northern California where he retreats to work. There's a wonderful
coup de musique at the close where the series of crescendos suddenly
broadens into a musical panorama, an effect inspired, Adams explains,
by a hike he took with his son. They reached the summit unexpectedly and
found themselves mesmerized by a fantastic view of Mt. Shasta and the
surrounding peaks. It's a lovely moment, reminiscent of that stunning
finale of "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" when Ives cuts off a dissonant
climax to reveal an echo of the misty string chord. After all the nostalgia
of the first two movements, the proceedings end on a decidedly hopeful
Programmatically, the Stravinsky concerto and the Tchaikovsky suite fit
beautifully with this work. Both composers, like Adams, looked to masters
of the past, Stravinsky using J.S. Bach as the launch-pad for the concerto,
one of the gems of his neo-classical period. Tchaikovsky looked to Baroque
forms for his suites, even if the Suite No. 3 ends up sounding a lot like
Tchaikovsky's other polonaises and marches.
Hilary Hahn, the 22-year-old American violinist, gets the rhythmic pulse
of the Stravinsky concerto without losing an ounce of suppleness and sweetness
in the tone. That's a rare achievement, as most violinists seem to do
one or the other. While some listeners, myself included, might prefer
a bit more sonic bite, the results, especially in the arias that make
up the inner movements, are ravishing. The outer movements could have
benefited from a bit more Stravinsky and a bit less Mozart in the approach.
As an encore, Hahn played the bourée from the Bach Partita No.
3, a fitting choice as it exactly the sort of Bach's music that might
have inspired Stravinsky in the concerto.
Hahn and the orchestra are scheduled to play the Stravinsky concerto on
tour, always on the same programs as the Adams work.
After the endlessly inventive music before intermission, the lightweight
Tchaikovsky suite seemed a bit of a letdown. Originally, the program was
to end with Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony (which the orchestra is playing
on the tour). The suite was more like a post-meal sweet, pleasant, colorful
and appealing, but not exactly meaty.
Reviews of the San Francisco Symphony’s London concerts will appear on
these pages after 10th May.