John Adams conducted the Orchestra of The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music in three works that showcased the expressiveness and energy of this precocious Anglo-American ensemble. I just love the upbeat communal vibe of these types of off-season concerts. The musicians were visibly reveling in the program, and savored the opportunity to follow the baton of one of the few composers who successfully embrace modern culture as source material for large-scale program music. Although the concert was billed as a ‘preview’ for yesterday’s concert in London (July 16, 2012), the event pointed to nothing but it’s own dedicated participants, imbuing the present moment with an astonishing grasp of some very dense orchestral textures.
Otto Respighi holds the reputation, along with composers like Rachmaninov, of being a throw-back, eschewing modernism and latching onto Romanticism long past its sell-by date. His Feste Romane (1929-1931) is said in the program notes to harken back to the symphonic poems of Liszt and Strauss, but to me it evoked nothing so much as passages from Scriabin’s Poem of Fire, in its hypnotic repetition of dense, charged chords, the use of piano and violin solo, and folk-like percussive motifs. The piece begins with a brief, ominous tutti explosion followed directly by an offstage fanfare of trumpets. The composer explained this opening section, Circenses (circuses) thus: “A threatening sky hangs over Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: Ave Nero! The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts float on the air…” This is program music, but not too gooey. A 1932 treatise against modernism—which the composer authored with nine colleagues—may induce us to think of his music as anachronistic, but the architecture of the piece seems very free and unplanned, and thus, in a way, modern. The brass section from the orchestra handled a wide range of timbres quite admirably.
Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1928) needs no such stylistic defense: the piece is unabashedly modern, evoking the urban space, femininity, and technological complexity of the jazz age, and, of course, embracing the jazz idiom with its abundant “blue” notes (flatted 3rds over major harmony). It was impressive to hear a young orchestra achieve such effulgence and burnished sound, and do justice to the Gershwin-esque lilts and sighs. Wizened, mystical harp passages in the opening movement prepare us for big, bluesy tutti, although it’s important to point out that the piece lacks the improvisatory soul of true jazz.
In the second movement, pianist Imogen Cooper’s introduction was a bit pedestrian, but was followed by an expansive orchestral response with a very moving flute solo. This slow waltz never became tiresome, establishing a very poignant and aurally generous ebb and flow, sending up a truly elegant oboe solo, and dying out with a placid piano trill. For the third movement, Adams demanded a more rigorous scherzando energy than the orchestra was able to deliver with clarity, but the transitions and stand-alone statements were convincing. Cooper’s manic keyboard work recalled the absurd assembly line frenzy of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.
I first saw John Adams conduct his own work during a dress rehearsal for Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera. I was impressed by how he intertwined the minimalist idiom with more lush passages reminiscent of Wagner, but I remember thinking that the music was somewhat straight-jacketed by a dedication to the characters, which were oftentimes stiff and guarded (it was Nixon and Mao, after all). Nevertheless, I was impressed with his mastery of zeitgeist. City Noir suffers from no such limitations. Its stylistic scope is alarming and awesome. Inspired by Kevin Starr’s “Dream” books, this piece is the last of three orchestral works that explore the California experience. Moreover, it gives us pause to consider that 80 years after Ravel, composers are still grappling with the process of integrating jazz into symphonic music.
Post-war, film noir Los Angeles has never been so scary and all-consuming. Orson Welles gave us A Touch of Evil, and Adams gives us fifty-seven evil anvils dropped from skyscrapers of varying heights. In the first section, The City and its Double, a hip, cool jazz drum kit foments a background that becomes foreground as improvisatory ideas are spun out and then scurry away before a blaring tutti. Here is Adams as conductor cum bandleader, egging on, rather than conducting, instrumental groups as they take their turn spitting out bad-ass statements of sophisticated savagery. Paranoia and imminent danger are expressed in a forward, frenzied tumult of the ugliest, most outer-spacey harmonies you ever heard. Orchestral tone colors, arrested strings bleeding magically into buzzing brass, evoke the potential of freeway disaster, as well as a starry sky ready to receive the souls of those who perish at the edge of the L.A. night.
The next section, The Song is for You, features a melodic alto sax solo flirting with traditional jazz language. The trombone takes over in an exclamatory passage approaching the knife-edge between anger and insanity, which the composer compares to the instrument’s appearance in the works of Duke Ellington. The concluding section, Boulevard Night, delivers a trumpet solo that the composer likens to the soundtrack of Polanski’e Chinatown, with its elegiac statement, helping to make sense of this danger-scape of glamorous illusions. Ejaculatory bursts of staccato strings bring us back to the narrative of life in the fast lane. This is a hostile atmosphere, but human beauty asserts itself in a saxophone theme, and a cerebral improvisatory marimba passage; and then back to a full complement of the bizarre and the grotesque. We thought California was about humans imposing their stylish will on nature, but goddamn – throbbing jungle night! This is the musical equivalent of the most abrasive Jackson Pollock vomit-canvas.
I thought at one point, “too cluttered… [ahem…] too many notes, my dear [Adams].” But then I reflected, a composer so brimming with ideas, connected by an overarching IDEA, owes us nothing in the way of spare texture. Indeed, zeitgeist isn’t about pensiveness and personal space; it’s about exposed nerves, an unwhetted appetite for spectacle, scandal, transgressive sex. This must be the music that Ralph Steadman hears as he sketches the humanoid creatures of his nightmares. It is not a can of diet coke. It is a bottle of Patron, swilled in three gulps by a convincing transvestite and smashed against the headlight of a police cruiser.
I have newfound respect for John Adams. He has convinced me of the need to marry an inner voice with the outer world of modern culture, no matter how fractured it may be. Hold a mirror up to us, and we will supply our own fun-house effects. That is the role of the contemporary composer.
Rob Wendt is a pianist / composer / music educator living in Astoria, NY. You can follow him on twitter: @RobWendt