New York Philharmonic serves up the worst and the best of John Adams

March 11, 2017
By George Grella
Music of John Adams was performed by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall.

Music of John Adams was performed by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall.

The ticket for Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic concert at David Geffen Hall listed the composers for the evening as “Beethoven and John Adams.” Yet only Adams was credited in the program, which was in part a celebration of his 70th birthday. So what was the story?

Beethoven was there as the foundation for Adams’ Absolute Jest, for orchestra and string quartet. The Philharmonic, with Alan Gilbert conducting, played that work on the first half of the concert, followed by Harmonielehre after intermission.

This was a best of/worst of program, and one is tempted to credit the Philharmonic for it’s warts-and-all honesty in putting together the concert. But orchestras play Absolute Jest (a San Francisco Symphony commission) because they think it’s worthwhile, and audiences respond—it earned a standing ovation Thursday, though virtually every performance does these days.

Adams’ program note briefly referred to the “mixed responses from listeners” Absolute Jest elicited on first hearing. The composer spent a year writing the work and found it “a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design.” Yet at the first New York performance, by the San Francisco Symphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet in March, 2012, the work came across as a lot of directionless note-spinning around straight excerpts from Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 131 and Op. 135.

Critics were not alone in wondering about the piece after its first performances. Adams wrote 400 new measures of music to replace the previous opening section. The revised version has improved formal clarity, with a more deliberate contrast between the extended introduction and the main part of the piece, and the string quartet is no longer buried under the orchestration.

GIlbert led a controlled and well-shaped performance with solid Beethoven playing from the Philharmonic string principals (violinists Frank Huang and Sheryl Staples, violist Cynthia Phelps, and cellist Carter Brey).

Yet Absolute Jest remains a failure. The introduction is not better music, it’s just a different emptiness. The improved transparency reveals the complete lack of invention. Quotes from the “Eroica” and Ninth Symphonies are dropped in, the quartet plays bits of the opening fugue and scherzo from String Quartet Op. 131, and the complete scherzo of Op. 135, and the orchestra picks up a few of those phrases.

Though Beethoven is in the public domain, Absolute Jest veers perilously close to intellectual property violation. There is barely any transformation of the original material, and what little there is takes away the energy from the original, explosive rhythms. Adams has merely sampled Beethoven and put it into a bland context. All of the meaningful content, all the crowd-pleasing energy and emotional force, comes from Beethoven. That Adams spent a year putting such a pedestrian frame around some of the most astonishing music ever written  indicates he needs the critics because he has difficulty judging his own work objectively.

Adams’ best work ensures his status as the “dean of American composers,” as Gilbert stated in his introduction–even with a career that has swung back and forth between quality works and disastrous ones in the past two decades.

It is Harmonielehre that deservedly vaulted Adams into his current status, and it is one of the great American symphonies, a work that in no small part permanently cemented his reputation.

This is thrilling, powerful music that reaches into the body. It is the kind of piece that grips the musicians, and the Philharmonic delivered a fabulous performance, with the feeling that every rhythm and phrase was being squeezed for every last bit of energy and beauty. Gilbert led with characteristically excellent attention to every detail and care for the large-scale structure.

There was a sense of command in every moment; the opening E minor chords pounded like an anvil, and the complex two-beat pulse against triple meter in the first movement had superb flow. The darkness of the second movement conveyed the requisite stillness without bogging down, and the final movement built layer upon layer to a spine-chilling conclusion.

The long string passages that pass through every register of the instruments were played with a rich, glowing sound, even as the ledger lines accumulated above the treble clef. The massive, resonant low brass chords weren’t just weighty, they had an exciting, raw edge of emotion.

In the opening remarks from Gilbert and Adams, the composer described the symphony as “putting [late] romantic music…through minimalist procedures.” There is still the view that Harmonielehre is a minimalist symphony, but this is not right and doesn’t capture the music’s importance. Adams was never a full, process-based minimalist like Reich and Glass; while he uses small repetitive units as building blocks, minimalism is merely one tool of many towards traditional classical ends.

Rather, Harmonielehre is full-blown romanticism, with long, soaring, expressive melodies that come from the same sound-world as Mahler and Berg and a movement from darkness to resonant brightness that echoes Sibelius. The piece is about how music can produce a physical and emotional, forceful beauty. It does the seemingly impossible by reconciling process-based music with classical tension and resolution, and created a way forward out of the dead-ends of minimalism and post-minimalism. And for that, Adams always deserves a standing ovation.

This program repeats 8 p.m. Saturday.

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