On October 18, 2012 I stumbled upon City of London Sinfonia’s performance of works by two of the most influential twentieth-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and John Adams. Stravinksy’s Octet, Music for solo clarinet and Music for string quartet, shared the programme with two of Adams earlier compositions, Gnarly Buttons and Grand Pianola Music. Michael Collins, conducted the performance at Cadogan Hall. In addition to being presented as a clarinetist on this occasion, Collins happened to be the soloist who commissioned Adams to write Gnarly Buttons for the London Sinfonietta back in 1996.
Although an interesting combination of solo pieces, string quartet repertoire and chamber ensemble works, what tied these composers together on this programme was the concept of dreams shaping the work. Shortly after becoming a naturalized United States citizen in 1945, Stravinsky’s neo-classical Octet was inspired from his dream of a small room with instrumentalists playing attractive music. Just over 10 years after moving to the San Francisco Bay area from the East Coast, Adams Grand Pianola Music is a subconscious recollection of a drive on the California Interstate 5, passing two gigantic Steinway pianos sitting on Bb and Eb arpeggios.
The concert was somewhat well attended, and the programming of the works was quite a balance for the evening. As Octet opened up the programme, a chamber ensemble piece for an unusual combination of woodwind and brass instruments, the three movements (Sinfonia, Tema con variazioni, and Finale) blended well together as a chamber-type “symphony” for this type of orchestration. Stravinsky’s use of sonata form in the first movement was a canvas of fugal writing, march fanfare, with streaks of American lyricism that was so much of an eclectic homage to Copeland. Tema con variazioni’s themes and variations tied waltz, marches, cancans, fugues, and melodic textures in such a kaleidoscopic setting in such a short movement. Finale ended the work in a rondo that felt joyful and exuberant from his earlier works from his Russian period. Octet still possesses its unique contrapuntal characteristic of chamber ensemble compositions.
What I found interesting of Gnarly Buttons was the fact that, as I can recollect from Collins’ introduction before the performance, the parts and score were faxed to the patron soloist the night a day before the concert. Through trial and error of such an awkward situation, Gnarly Buttons is probably one of Adams’ most personal work, not only because of the clarinet being his first principal instrument, but also because of the dedication to his late father at the time. The 13-piece instrumentation, which included a banjo player also complemented Stravinsky’s interesting approach of orchestrating. The Perilous Shore’s New England folk-like textures against minimalistic motives on innovative instruments such as a toy piano and synth organ made the piece energetic as his other works. His clarinet concerto writing reminded me of hearing Benny Goodman’s golden performances that also shaped my musical direction as a clarinetist. Hoedown (Mad Cow) was complex yet playful in an American Jazz Song landscape. The sound bite of the cow mooing from a pre-recorded tape was entertaining and humorous. Put Your Loving Arms Around Me was sad and melancholic to say the least, as it reflects on the dynamic relationship between him and his late father. The homage’s of Mother of a Man from his Naïve and Sentimental’s symphonic work, and Chorus of Exiled Palestinians from The Death of Klinghoffer in Loving Arms points to the fragile and delicate frameworks in human relationships. I would like to think that Collins dynamic and majestic performance was just as charming as the premiere from ‘96. In conclusion, Adams saying goodbye to his father musically was a touching closure before the interval.
Originally written for amateur classic ragtime performance, Stravinsky’s Music for solo clarinet was a piece of three miniatures contrasting of fast riffs, preludes, and etude type of exercises. Music for string quartet was quite a marvel, having been only composed in four days, just one year after Rite of Spring. The first dance movement Danse was sharp and bouncing, as Eccentric, being inspired by a clown, was both tense and light-hearted. Perhaps the most interesting though at odds with the previous movements, Canticle was dark and ominous, with dense harmony and clustered harmonics, ending the work in a haunting soundscape.
Finally, Grand Pianola Music closed the curtains with all its heroism and simplistic exuberance, feeling as if it was a “salt of the earth” type of American cultural treat for the classical audience in Britain. Like the others, this is the first time I have seen this piece performed live, which was a thrill. The setting in Pianola Music brought me back to the special days at my alma mater, as Adams credits hearing blurs of sounds with solo piano repertoire raging in the hallways and outside the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s former location in the Sunset District, where he taught from 1972-1982. This three fast-slow-fast movement work was harshly attacked by the “Princeton Columbia Club” back in 1982, yet Collins delivered a performance that proves the test of time of this maverick type of composition, which still needs to be heard in its cultural perspective. The first and third movement featured his fast minimalistic trademark style of writing, juxtaposed with hurried and frantic climatic roller-coaster textures that had no destination of resolution. The second movement was also dreamy yet tutti forte, mixed with Copelandesque lyricism, also resonating with melodic harmonies from Stravinsky’s Octet. On a serendipitous-synchronized note, the third movement features quotes from standard repertoire that my pianist roommate currently has been working on all this month (First movement from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata). The use of choir with Synergy Vocals was a unique blend with the pulsating ostinatos and bursting arpeggios on the piano. Foreshadowing his iconic Harmonielehre, influences of textures and motives from this work made its presence, which was also based on a surrealist dream of the composer.
It’s not often that we see Stravinsky and Adams solely sharing the stage; the combination was a little tense yet warmly regarded at the same time. While a few critics based in the UK have somewhat written off Adam’s compositions in comparison to Stravinsky’s pieces, one can take a step back and impartially listen to all of the works on the programme, based on the dreams and experiences that have carried both composers to give us these creations.
Brian Mark is an American composer currently living in London.