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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Making Music: John Adams, Soloists and Orchestra, Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City, March 21, 2005 (BH)

Adams: Hallelujah Junction (1996)
Adams: Road Movies (1995)
Adams: American Berserk (2001)
Adams: Chamber Symphony (1992)

John Adams, Conductor
Leila Josefowicz, Violin
Nicolas Hodges, Piano
Rolf Hind, Piano
John Novacek, Piano

The Roadrunners
Ebonee Thomas, Flute-Piccolo
Nicholas Stovall, Oboe
Nick Homenda, Clarinet
Alicia N. Lee, Clarinet
Andrew Cuneo, Bassoon
Damian Primis, Bassoon
Jonas Vandyke, French Horn
Jason Price, Trumpet
Eric Starr, Trombone
Timothy Feeney, Percussion
Isabelle O’Connell, Keyboard Sampler
Benjamin Sung, Violin
Leah Ilem, Viola
Jonathan Lewis, Cello
Ted Botsford, Double Bass

Ara Guzelimian, Series Moderator


Having now heard John Adams’ exuberant Chamber Symphony live several times, I feel no hesitation marking it as possibly one of the great works of the 1990s (granted, as if we need to make such judgments now). But it has all the hallmarks of a lasting addition to the repertoire: it’s satisfyingly scored and the players no doubt have a giddy time with its pulsating intricacies, it has structural interest that only increases with each hearing, and its musical references will appeal to many types of ears, including those which may remain shuttered to the modernists’ siren call. Adams studied Schoenberg’s Kammersinfonie as a model, and although the instrumentation is similar, Adams incorporates both an electronic keyboard and a traditional trap set for the percussionist. In comments before the performance, Adams described the first movement, “Mongrel Airs,” as a “birthday party for twenty hyperactive 9-year-old boys” – not inaccurate. The second “Aria with Walking Bass” chugs along andante, with the double bass (Ted Botsford) anchoring the group while the brass players sail over all with some airy chorales. The finale, “Roadrunner,” is a mad rush of instruments all crowding for attention, with mechanical rhythms percolating nonstop until the work’s drop-off conclusion. Adams confesses that this work comes at the end of a period of greater complexity in his music, but it remains one of his best works, and the young players here gave it an electric reading.

The ensemble was formed from a group of young musicians from all over the United States, selected for a four-day training workshop at Carnegie, and the four days of rehearsals paid off beautifully. It must have been tremendous fun for these musicians to work on this score with its creator, and the audience response at the end said as much – would that all concerts had such tightly focused ensemble work. Special kudos to Timothy Feeney, whose relentless drumming was not only accurate but highly effective, and to violinist Benjamin Sung, who was dealt a furiously entertaining violin part in the final movement. Anyone wary of contemporary music should hear this at least once.

Immediately prior came a little tornado called American Berserk, originally written for Garrick Ohlsson and here given a performance by Nicolas Hodges that was a model of precision and voicing. The piece owes a clear debt to Nancarrow’s jerky, jazz-inflected thoughts, and I suspect that in unknowing hands this work can become a hammering mess. Hodges, however, found not only clarity but also a great deal of delicacy, perhaps belying the implied terror of the title. The title was suggested by a line in author Philip Roth’s book, American Pastoral and there is much pleasure to be had in the company of Adams’ densely patterned six minutes.

Working further back, violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek sent us back to Kerouac-land with Road Movies, which I first heard played several years ago. The first “Relaxed Groove” is a bit of a misnomer, since the violin part might be something Heifetz would do for an encore, if he were a fiddler engulfed by a fireball of double-stops. The second “Meditative” is a bit bluesy, with free phrasing that suggested renaissance choral music – for some reason I thought of Josquin des Prez, appearing and disappearing equally quickly. The title of the final “40% Swing” is derived from commercial composition software, which Adams occasionally employs (as many composers do these days). One such program “helpfully” offers to insert as much swing as you like: 10%, 20%, etc. However much was actually inserted, Josefowicz and Novacek cruised through the work’s demands as if speeding through the desert in a Chevy with the top down.

The superb pianist Rolf Hind joined Mr. Hodges to open the concert with Hallelujah Junction (written for Grant Gershon and Gloria Cheng), which Adams explained was an exercise in writing similar material for two pianos, which could be played slightly out of phase with each other. As composer Ingram Marshall explained in his fine notes, “…the sonorous qualities of the two pianos are exploited fully, the instruments often playing canonic chases at small intervals to create a kind of electronic delay effect.” The result is an intriguing series of rhythmic cells in modal harmonies that collide in waves, over and over again. After the initial hearing, I’m not sure the work was my favorite of the four, but Hodges and Hind’s sensational expertise was never in doubt. Just counting this piece must be a bit of a tour de force in itself.

Bruce Hodges



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