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Review: New York Philharmonic Presents a Birthday Tribute to Composer John Adams

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, March 13, 2017

David Geffen Hall, as the home of the New York Philharmonic is presently called, is awaiting, with some trepidation owing to money troubles, a long anticipated renovation which will forever change (and in theory, improve) the acoustics in this important venue. But, last week the Hall was satisfactorily resplendent with the sounds of John Adams on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Alan Gilbert, in his final season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position in which he has championed music of the twentieth century and that of living composers, spoke before the concert and presented Mr. Adams as “the Dean of American composers.”

The concert was to begin with Absolute Jest, a relatively new concerto grosso for amplified string quartet and orchestra from 2012. But first, Gilbert introduced Adams, who made some remarks on the occasion of turning 70. He remembered playing in a performance of Copland on the occasion of ‘his’ 70th birthday in 1970. They then introduced the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, which was to serve as the string quartet in Absolute Jest, a 25 minute tone poem and homage to Beethoven, which Adams described as “the world’s longest scherzo,” a tribute to Beethoven’s sense of energy that quotes him on a motivic level, and also incorporates verbatim passages.

But first, Adams introduced a few passages of the Beethoven quartet material which would become pivotal in the piece we were about to hear. The quartet began by playing the languid opening fugue from the C-sharp minor Quartet, Op 131, then the fifth movement scherzo. They also played the entirety of the second movement scherzo of the F major quartet, Op 135. (Also incorporated into the piece are cells from Beethoven’s 7th and 9th Symphonies and the Grosse Fugue.) This was a valuable exercise for the bulk of the audience to relate to the new music, but it also felt like we were being treated to a musicology lecture.

The piece, in which piano, harp, and cowbells are tuned to pure intonation (“to the mean-tone E”), is a musical kaleidoscope full of counterpoint and brilliant waves of tension and release. Moments born out of the spirit of “jest” can be less persuasive, as when Beethoven’s music is quoted more or less directly, which can seem prosaic in this context. At its best, the overall effect is Ives-ian, as if the listener were walking along a corridor of practice rooms at an all-Beethoven school. The ending is unexpected and ingenious, with a surprising wispy gesture conveying a sense of unraveling.

Adams’s Harmonielehre was composed in 1984-85 after a dream involving an oil tanker taking flight inspired relief from a period of writer’s block. This symphony-scaled three movement piece, a veritable masterpiece of late twentieth century orchestral literature, might have been subtitled ‘A Tonalist’s Manifesto.’ The actual title is in reference to Schoenberg’s music theory treatise Harmonielehre, written in 1910, and speaks to Adams’s rejection of Schoenberg’s atonal approach. Indeed, this piece might have been Schoenberg’s worst nightmare: unapologetic, glorious tonal music.

In the first movement, Part 1, a large A-B-A structure, copious repeated note figures and churning ostinatos in continually shifting meters maneuver through constantly pivoting harmonies to form a sweeping, densely woven orchestral tapestry. The second theme ushered in ravishing warmth, and long, extended melodies, played with aplomb by the Philharmonic’s soloists. Adams’ tonal flavors are reminiscent of Hindemith and Prokofiev, and being lumped in with minimalists like Glass and Reich, Adams must be under-appreciated as a melodist.

Part 2, The Amfortas Wound, is a darker animal, beginning mournfully, and exhibiting masterful orchestration as it grows. In a section Adams marked “Floating,” indelibly rich harmonies tumble obliquely, first from the woodwind section, then melting into the brass section, involving trombones playing in their highest register, and careful application of muted brass. The final movement, entitled Meister Eckhardt and Quackie, begins gently and builds to a rousing Mahler-sized climax.

Throughout, this difficult score was negotiated expertly with impeccable intonation and rhythmic precision. Whenever the players got into a pickle (say, a treacherously high french horn entrance) they recovered with quick and subtle grace. Gilbert, whose style on the podium is straightforward and contained, demonstrates a clear grasp of the architecture of the piece, and how to let the music soar.

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The New York Philharmonic in concert on March 9, 2017. Alan Gilbert, Music Director and Conductor. New York Philharmonic String Quartet: Frank Huang (Concertmaster), Sheryl Staples (Principal Associate Concertmaster), Cynthia Phelps (Principal Violist) and Carter Brey (Principal Cellist).

John Adams: Absolute Jest
John Adams: Harmonielehre

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Cover: Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic String Quartet (l. to r.)  Frank Huang (violin), Sheryl Staples (violin), Carter Brey (cello), Cynthia Phelps (viola) and the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.


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