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Adams, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Hilary Hahn, violin; San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. Davis Symphony Hall, San Francisco, May 4, 2003 (HS)


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 note.

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.

Harvey Steiman

Reviews of the San Francisco Symphony’s London concerts will appear on these pages after 10th May.



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