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John Cage, Paul Dresher, David Lang and John Adams: Clio Gould(violin) London Sinfonietta, John Adams, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.9.2009 (BBr)

John Cage: Credo in US (1942)
Paul Dresher: Concerto for violin & electro-acoustic band (1996/1997 revised for the London Sinfonietta (2009)) (European première)
David Lang: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993)
John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony (2008) (UK première)

Cage described Credo in US as “a suite of satirical character”. Certainly his use of a radio, supposedly picking up whatever happens to be playing at the time (for tonight’s performance, Adams had prepared material recorded from American radio) can really create havoc if the “right” station is found – I once heard a performance where the radio played Dvořà k’s New World Symphony! Added to this there are two percussionists, playing “found” instruments, and a piano. All this probably sounds quite Cageian to you, but added to all this colourfulness, at one point the keyboard launches into a blues, then a boogie woogie. It’s great fun and that’s all there is to it. And this sense of fun pervaded almost the whole concert.

Paul Dresher’s Concerto isn’t anything you’d recognise as such a piece. Scored for an ensemble of violin, guitar, bassoon, bass clarinet, double bass and two keyboards, it’s in two movements, the first starting with pizzicato from the soloist, to which the ensemble violin joins in. The texture fills out and the music gets richer, but, ultimately, nothing really happens. The second movement is a gorgeous, elegiac, slow piece, with much luxurious harmony and I can see this becoming a rather popular piece for it has a lot going for it musically. Clio Gould made a strong and resolute soloist.

David Lang says that he is fed up with composers writing pieces which show just how good they are: “Here’s this big gushing melody: see how emotional I am” and so on so he wondered what it would be like if a composer were to write a piece based on what acknowledged faults or deficiencies. In this work, Lang tries to look at these dark things. Scored for a small group of cello, bass clarinet, piano, two percussionists playing metal instruments and another playing marimba, and with the tempo marking Ominous funk, the piece expands and contracts the musical motifs it employs; the cello and bass clarinet play extended melodies; there is an exciting use of silence; the piece ends with a grown up version of the music with which it began. It’s a thrilling and totally invigorating piece.

John Adams’s new Son of Chamber Symphony was the only work written for an orchestra, the usual Sinfonietta line–up plus a few extras. For me, it is a welcome return to a form I felt Adams lost some time ago and perhaps I should explain this. Whilst writing his myriad operas, from Nixon in China in 1985 onwards, I have felt that Adams has lost a certain quirkiness which made so many of his earlier works enjoyable – The Chairman Dances has it, Grand Pianola Music is full of it, but he has become far too serious in my view – hence my excitement about this new work. Since its premiere in 2007, it has been choreographed for San Francisco Ballet under the title Joyride, and that is the perfect description of this work. In three large movements, it starts with a fast piece which is full of good time music – even including another big boogie woogie – with rhythm to the fore. The slow movement has a beautiful cantabile for flute, then clarinet, over pizzicato strings, and as the rest of the wind section is added the music speeds up and Adams builds a gloriously sonorous and full climax. The finale, if one can call it that, is full of urban music, it’s urgent and nervy. Great stuff. This piece should not be allowed to be the preserve of modern music ensembles in my view, all orchestras should be playing it for we need this kind of entertainment in our concert halls.

The Sinfonietta played wonderfully well throughout tonight’s show and it was a real joy to be entertained by contemporary music, rather than bored by it.

BBC Radio 3 recorded the concert for broadcast in Hear and Now on 3 October. Don’t miss it.

Bob Briggs

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