It’s very likely that John Adams needed a strong adult beverage after the highs and lows of the Met’s recent run of The Death of Klinghoffer. Steeped in plaudits and tumult alike, the hubbub served as a reminder that even America’s preeminent composer can both bask and bake in the spotlight. Thank goodness for SubCulture: The NoHo venue that offers craft beers and quartets gave Adams the opportunity to shift that spotlight onto some of his favorite music of the moment through CONTACT!, a co-Presentation of the New York Philharmonic and 92nd Street Y.
In curating the first of three CONTACT! concerts, Adams designed a vivid evening of music which, apart from his own old friend Ingram Marshall, was written by a trio of his youngest contemporaries: Daníel Bjarnason, Missy Mazzoli, and Timo Andres. The three have a mean age registering in at about 33 years, and in Adams’ words the “support in a digital age” that has become a necessity for composers of their generation. And wow, who better to offer a boost than Adams himself, who cherry-picked works for the program that entertained, impressed, even inspired him. The composers, who were all in attendance save for Marshall, must have glowed inside when listening to Adams, who was professorially witty, charming, and Cali-cool as he illustrated what he found most intriguing about their music.
Bjarnason’s Bow to String (2009) was the evening’s three-movement opener; a fractured, mysterious hymn for cello and ensemble. Within the first few phrases it became easy to tell that Bjarnason has a knack for imbuing bits of beauty into chaotic, dreamy glimpses. A turbulent ostinato passed between Nathan Vickery’s solo cello and the supporting strings and subsided only for brief, rhapsodic fragments. Played formidably by Vickery and an ensemble of musicians from the New York Philharmonic, the first movement was like a folk dance twirling quickly out of control. In the second, a prepared piano tolled like a bell. The subdued elegance of the third, where Vickery’s cello sounded out like a singing saw, was, as Adams had aptly described it, so beautiful “even Mahler would be envious.” Later in the evening Bjarnason’s “Five Possibilities“ for clarinet, cello, and piano (2014) featured more music that further tiptoed into whimsically brief, personal portraits containing moments of real beauty.
Adams’ chronicled his decades-long friendship with Marshall and Marshall’s propensity towards the culinary (“Adams,” Marshall once asked about some of his music, “do you think I’ve put too much butter in it?”). He also explained, as the audience raptly nerded out, Marshall’s use of isorhythms in the vein of masters the likes of Guillaume de Machaut. There was something indescribably awesome about hearing a modern great like Adams reference an ancient musical hero—after all, what is Machaut if not the “John Adams of the 14th century?” Marshall wrote Muddy Waters (2004) for the eclectic septet of cello, bass, electric guitar, bass clarinet, marimba, and piano. Based on words from the 17th century Bay Psalm Book (the very first publication British North America), the music passed through fluctuating degrees of clarity and liveliness. The top range of each instrument sounded like the bottom of the next, and as the music lurched upwards the far-out band of voices touched and receded in varied repetitions.
Dissolve, O My Heart (2010) was written by Mazzoli for Jennifer Koh’s Bach and Beyond series. As a Bach inspired work for solo violin, Dissolve was built on that D-minor chord and immediately invokes the legendary chaconne from BWV 1004. As Mazzoli described however, the piece never fully succeeds to fill out the form of its forebear. Instead, it was an exercise in Sisyphean futility, and the brilliant Anna Rabinova churned out vamps on the violin that struggled, skipped, and stuttered back to Point A again and again and again. Adams mentioned his admiration for Mazzoli’s adherence to a traditional form while firmly stamping on it her own intent and voice.
Timo Andres’ Early to Rise (2013), a string quartet in one extended movement, was similarly fresh. Through borrowing a “found musical object,” in this case a tiny motif from Robert Schumann’s Morning Songs, Andres built an intense, kaleidoscopic structure shored by imitation and modulation. It was a harrowing, explosive finale to Adams’ playlist. And from a young composer who, as Adams himself recounted, was wearing a t-shirt with John Adams’ face plastered on it the day the two first met.
More concerts should be like this – unpretentious, built on community, fun, and in which composers can celebrate and elaborate on their ideas and their idols. And with some damn good beer, too.