Saturday, August 22, 2009

Loops and Verses

John Adams is a great deal of fun to watch conduct: animated, gangly, amiable, white-haired but youthful-looking. Mostly Mozart had him as a resident composer this summer (largely connected with a production of "A Flowering Tree" last Thursday, which I did not get to see), which is why he was up with the International Contemporary Ensemble in the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall on Monday night. (Alice Tully Hall has gotten rave reviews since said refurbishment, by the way, and they're accurate.) They put on a concert that, as a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation will demonstrate, was not mostly Mozart, being rather an Adamsian traversal of the celebrated Shaker Loops (1978), the clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons (1996), and his more recent Son of Chamber Symphony (2007).

I hadn't really had the ICE on my radar; they started up in 2001, and I hadn't seen them perform before. They're visibly youthful (see: cellist mohawk) and damn good. They must have rehearsed the program down to its last flittering eighth notes, because they were tight beginning to end, jaw-droppingly so in the chaotic last movement of Son of Chamber Symphony.

Shaker Loops was Adams's first big coming-out piece, back when he was emerging from Glass- and Reich-style minimalism, and it still stands out as an thrilling demonstration of the dramatic potential that can be pumped out of minimalist textures. The ICE did the string septet version, which is concentrated and punchy, at least when it's not subliming into its equally winning, glinting wisps of high harmonics. Alternately Adams works you into a trance, winds up tension, releases it, blisses out again, starts up an engine that chugs away in unpredictable momentum: once and always an exciting new piece of music, this one.

Gnarly Buttons brought out the leather-jacketed and invincible clarinetist Michael Collins, who premiered and recorded the work back in the day. Playing this thing from memory makes it all the more impressive. I've never been a huge fan of the piece on CD, but the brighter and better quality of the real clarinet in the room makes it shine: the chalumeau tangles of the opening lines, the quirky Stravinskian parody-neoclassicism of the central hoedown movement, and the tender, troubled invisible lyrics of the closing song ("Put Your Loving Arms Around Me," traced in a recurring figure set above the same gentle accompanying pulses that a couple of years later would feature more epically in "Naive and Sentimental Music"). The chamber orchestra has a funky little orchestration, with mandolin highlights and an odd wind section (English horn and trombone being prominent), and probably a little too much hazy synthesizer against just a handful of string players. It's a piece with personality and range, though.

"Son of Chamber Symphony" is named sci-fi style after Adams's earlier Chamber Symphony, from the mid-90s, one of his best pieces; the Son is less riotously tangled up in crazy counterpoint, but it is a great headlong rush of a throwback for Adams. Actually it is quite literally a throwback, with a last movement that goes all Will It Blend on some yet-recognizable figures from the first couple scenes of Nixon in China. I think this is the first time Adams has gone in for self-quotation; there's nothing not to like, especially if you miss the old 80s-vintage Adams churning out simple brassy harmonies. The first movement, meanwhile, puts some Nancarrow-reminiscent competing pulses to the trademark figure of the scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and spins out an appealingly boppy movement; the second movement returns to the textures of that first movement of Naive and Sentimental Music. You can listen to the piece online, thanks to the Carnegie Hall website, and I really recommend doing so: it's really a pleasure.

Towards the end of that third movement, the work starts winding down, and a slight note of melancholy slides into the uproar; the throwbackiness of the music starts to imply a more bittersweet nostalgia, maybe. A glimpse of luminous, even-textured eighth-note chords in the piano part, and even more so the once-characteristic woodblock whocking that enters with surprising gentleness, seem to carry the music off into a receding distance. The end itself is puckish and sudden, and it drew an appreciative murmur of a laugh from the audience: there's your Adams-style personality and humor. I wanted to hear the whole concert top to bottom a second time, but you take, as always, what you can get.


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