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Uneasy Pair

October 20, 2004

Alan Gilbert


John Adams

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By Lisa Hirsch

Visitors to the San Francisco Symphony's Web site during the week of October 17 through 24 were greeted by a fetching picture of the violinist Midori, accompanied by the text “Midori plays Beethoven, Oct 20-23: Superstar Midori brings her stunning artistry to Beethoven's one and only Violin Concerto.” Beethoven's in good company on that count: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Dvorák share with him the distinction of having written only one violin concerto; but a visitor — not in the mood to hear the piece — who didn't click through to read about the concerts would have missed reading about the other work on the program, the San Francisco premiere of John Adams's 1999 Naïve and Sentimental Music.

It's maddening that the Symphony buried an exciting and significant premiere that way, instead of giving it all the exposure possible. Adams is an important composer; he's a local composer; his work is beautiful, popular, and much-performed, and it's accessible to audiences who would run from plenty of other important contemporary works. Unsurprisingly, there was a good turnout for Wednesday's concert, and the audience was treated to a crackerjack performance of a great piece.

The composer was on hand for the occasion and spoke about Naïve and Sentimental Music before it was played, with conductor Alan Gilbert and the orchestra providing musical illustrations. Adams encouraged the audience to regard the work as a symphony, despite its “whimsical” title. He spoke of wanting to create something spacious, and of how deeply he has been affected by the California landscape, as a visual and sensual inspiration, since his arrival here in 1972.

But not fluff

The title isn't quite as whimsical as he implied, though, according to the program notes. “Naïve” refers to the natural composer, who writes spontaneously and from the heart. The “sentimental” composer is more self-aware, more conscious of his place in history. Adams spoke of this, too, characterizing as naïve the jaunty, winding, opening flute-and-oboe melody and telling us, as well, that the piece would get into “deep water” of various kinds.

The first movement shares its name with the whole work, and that sweet-toned, syncopated opening provides the building blocks to construct a first movement on a grand scale. The syncopation is incessant throughout the orchestra, creating complex and near-constant cross-rhythms, as different rhythmic motives combine in different ways. The orchestration is densely layered and often explosive, driven by an enormous and varied percussion battery. It's as though Stravinsky's compositional techniques had been combined with rock and roll at its best and the whole taken to the farthest possible extreme. Adams handles the rhythmic complexity in a masterly fashion and makes the orchestral sonorities themselves a part of the structure. It's an enormously exciting movement, finishing in a huge crescendo.

The middle movement, “The Mother of the Man,” starts slowly and contemplatively, with open octaves sounding quietly in the upper strings. They're joined by the eerie, plaintive sound of bowed vibraphones and crotales; eventually, out of the bleak soundscape comes a gorgeous minor-key melody played by a lone guitar. The strings play a counterpoint to the guitar, and then the bassoons join with their own counterpoint, set very high in the instruments' range. The orchestral texture gradually becomes denser. About halfway through the movement, a series of phrases consisting of brief, heart-rending crescendos creates an intensely emotional climax. The orchestra thins out again, the guitar returns, and the movement dies away with a hush that goes on forever.

Appropriate weight

Naïve and Sentimental Music finishes with “Chain to the Rhythm.” It's an exhilarating close, beautifully balancing the first two movements. Adams must have been thinking of it when he told the audience that the piece is naïve but also has plenty of “heavy metal” in the percussion. (The brass also gets a good workout.) But for all the metal, the movement has a marvelous transparency, with every sonority perfectly calculated and controlled.

Where to go after this magnificent new piece, magnificently played and conducted? Oh, right back to the safe confines of the Classical period. Gilbert's a fine conductor of Beethoven as well as Adams, and shaped the music very sympathetically. Midori played elegantly (if with occasional pitch problems, especially in running passages) and with restraint: a Classical rather than Romantic interpretation. The music and its clear, firm structure could be admired from all angles, from the several marvelous series of trills in the first movement to the heart-stopping transition from the second to the third movement.

The concerto is a masterpiece, and it was beautifully played, and yet… the two halves of the concert really did seem to come from different worlds. The Beethoven made an inappropriate and overly-well-behaved companion-piece to the overwhelming force of the Adams. About the only musical connection that can be made between the two works is that the earlier piece has its own rhythmic obsessions. Its repeated knocking rhythms would have been markedly eccentric in the context of the early 19th century, but they didn't sound the slightest bit unusual, heard in close proximity to the Adams. The concert represents a lost opportunity: the Beethoven was somewhat diminished by its presence on the program, and there must be plenty of 20th century pieces violin concertos by Berg and Adams himself among them that could have had an interesting dialog with Naïve and Sentimental Music.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2004 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved