Adams conducts Adams (and Carter) in exhilarating night at New World Symphony

December 02, 2012
By David Fleshler

Composer John Adams conducted the New World Symphony Saturday night in Miami Beach.

John Adams, the preeminent living classical composer in the United States, brought his ebullient music and personality to Miami Beach Saturday for a concert with the New World Symphony.

There were a surprising number of empty seats at New World Center for a star of Adams’ wattage. While this may be because of the contemporary program, few conductors or composers put on such an entertaining, yet serious, show as Adams, who took time to explain each work, using the orchestra to demonstrate significant passages, before performing the entire composition.

Still youthful and energetic at 65, Adams showed an easy rapport with the orchestra’s young musicians, calling them by name and giving a quick pat on the back after a good performance. “It’s always a pleasure for me to come down here, almost every year,” he said. “The rest of the year is sort of a downer.”

Adams first conducted a work by the American composer Elliott Carter, who died last month at the age of 103. Carter composed somber, dissonant works of the sort that made many listeners hate modern music, but Adams was an effective advocate for the composer’s Variations for Orchestra. Before leading the orchestra in the work, he explained its Cold War context, saying one passage made him think of the static-filled radio transmissions of the Sidney Lumet film Fail Safe, about an accidental nuclear attack.

Under Adams’ baton—and thanks in part to his introduction—the work’s eerie, tension-filled dissonances were full of fearful resonances. Yet Adams brought out a tone in the work that was almost Romantic, in the solemn, elegiac nobility of the brass—particularly the trombones— evocative of another time and place, and the passage in which the authoritative, almost oppressive tones of the full string section played against slender, tentative answers in the winds. It remains a difficult score, and it’s hard to imagine coming home after a long day and deciding to pop this music into the CD player, but by the time it plodded and thundered to an end it was impossible to not take it seriously.

Adam’s Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra was given its premiere last year in San Francisco. The work plays off several motifs of Beethoven—-from the Ninth Symphony, the late string quartets, the Waldstein┬áPiano Sonata and others—with the unusual combination of string quartet and symphony orchestra using two ensembles into which Beethoven poured some of his greatest work.

After the deadly serious Carter score, it was a pleasure to hear this spirited, brilliantly orchestrated and creative work that didn’t take itself too seriously. Joining the orchestra for the performance was the St. Lawrence String Quartet, based at Stanford University, which had played in the work’s world premiere. There aren’t many works for string quartet and orchestra, but if you’re going to write one, the St. Lawrence String Quartet is your ensemble. The four musicians’ angular, hyperkinetic style—combined with Adams’ transparent orchestration—allowed the quartet to cut through the sound of the orchestra without trouble.

In one highly effective passage, the fugue from Beethoven’s late String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor was played off against Adams’ trademark minimalist patterns in the orchestra, achieving an unearthly sonority that seamlessly melded the music of both composers. The St. Lawrence members brought a manic style to passages from the scherzo of Beethoven’s last quartet that teetered exhilaratingly on the edge of out-of-control. Although such an approach risks trivializing great works of the past, Adams’ writing has fun with it, showing a fascination with the music and drawing energy and inspiration from it without a trace of parody.

The concert opened with a performance of Adams’ 1995 Slonimsky’s Earbox, a tribute to the title hyperactive Russian-born musicologist. Led by New World’s conducting fellow Joshua Gersen, this work seemed like the musical expression of ADHD, with musical ideas elbowing each other out of the way, strings zipping up and down the scale and an air of hyper-energy throughout. This is virtuosic orchestra music, and under Gersen’s baton the New World musicians gave a tight, animated, and sparkling performance.


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