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Behold The Quantum Magician

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Centre
08/17/2009 -  
John Adams: Shaker Loops – Son of Chamber Symphony – Gnarly Buttons

Michael Collins (Clarinet)
International Contemporary Ensemble, John Adams (Conductor)

Conductor John Adams (© Richard Termine)

The lines of orchestra, dance, song, lighting and story were so tightly tied up in last week’s opera, A Flowering Tree, that John Adams’ orchestral writing became another warp and woof in the Gordian knot. Too many gifts were scattered around for the audience to gaze upon, so that the music itself was hard to tear from the rest.

That could hardly be said for the all-Adams chamber orchestral concert last night. Three works from the composer’s musical life were offered, with the wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble doing the honors. But in front of this group–which varied in size from seven to 20–Mr. Adams himself,–lean, fit, dressed in black, bobbing and dancing, cueing in virtually everybody–was the supreme creator. Had the music not been so wonderful in so many different ways, one could have watched this 62-year-old child for the full 90 minutes.

But each of the three pieces showed a different part of him. The 1978 Shaker Loops was of course the archetypal Minimalist, at the time when he and Steve Reich gloried in pure atmosphere, in lines merging, submerging, forming a confusing but always enthralling road map. Gnarly Buttons , written two decades later for Michael Collins, was far far from the Minimalist canon, for now Mr. Adams was becoming the master of disguise, not repeating themes but playing and hiding them, transforming them before our ears.

Two years ago, the playful Mr. Adams composed Son of Chamber Symphony (yes, he modeled the title on sequel movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s). This is a work of quotes–from Beethoven and from his own music–but again it is so cleverly composed that one only unconsciously notices the quotes. It isn’t a puzzle piece (like, say, Berio’s Sinfonia) but a work of jagged, disjointed wondrous rhythms.

Of the usual suspects–Glass, Reich and Adams–Adams is by far the most sheerly American. Both Reich and Glass pride themselves in adapting from Indian sources. Reich has studied Balinese and African drumming. And while John Adams has used exotic subjects for his opera, the music has the drive, rhythm, velocity and energy of a Bernstein ballet.

Son of Chamber Symphony, in fact, with a first movement based on the three notes leading to the Beethoven 9th scherzo, is frankly toe-tapping, a swirling Fancy Free-style ballet opening. The last movement has two themes, both lifted from Nixon In China. But this is hardly self-plagiarism. The cadenza by each instrument (often in near-sync), the fractional differences in rhythms between the instruments were all meant to catch us off-guard. Listening to Son of Chamber Symphony was like watching a high-speed magician. We simply didn’t want to miss a single move.

Hearing Michael Collins play Gnarly Buttons was hearing the “authorized version”, since the work had been written for him. The honors were all his, but we felt part of a historical occasion. Once again, Mr. Adams was the master of disguise. The simplest vocal line on the clarinet became more complex, then with the small orchestra far more intricate until Mr. Adams had created, out of whole cloth, an entire world of emotion.

The second movement, Hoedown, had a Copland-like feel, but this led into a joyous, operatic, dreamworld finale which Mr. Collins summoned up with all the panache necessary.

The evening started with Mr. Adams’ third orchestration of Shaker Loops, this for seven string players. Both these technical wizards and Mr. Adams had a fine time together, the conductor himself continuing to conduct the first movement for a few measures after it was finished.

But this is John Adams’ style. He is hardly an engineer (unlike certain other composers of his generation), yet had he designed machinery, we would have loved to see the blueprints. Instead we heard his ever-moving, ever personal creations. And no, we couldn’t grab the notes or whistle the tunes. But like a quantum magician, his effects appeared, disappeared, dazzled and left us all in an indescribably ordered cosmos.

Harry Rolnick



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