I certainly don't intend for TSR to become a concert review blog. I can hardly imagine anything more tedious. Yet it must be said that in the wake of Saturday's Symphony concert, I really feel that John Adams has been done a disservice. And it makes me angry.
Alan Gilbert was guest conducting and opened the program with John's Naive and Sentimental Music, a mammoth 50-minute 3-movement symphony from 1999, which John himself describes as the "most ambitious" work that he'd written up to that point, aside from the operas. And it really is huge, in terms of forces, scope, dynamics, architecture.... basically on all fronts. John took the stage with Alan at the start of the concert, and introduced the work in his usual charming, folksy way, describing the melody of the first movement as being like Pip going out into the world and having all sorts of adventures befall him. He talked about the tremendous influence of the Western landscape on his writing, and how the second movement recalls a desert panorama. And then he let the musicians have at it.
First I should say, I think John's written a powerful piece here. The first movement is, like he said, an exploration of a marvelously extended spinning melody, which moves in all sorts of unexpected directions, reminding me at times of both Klinghoffer and the Violin Concerto in texture and line. The second movement is mesmerizing, with a simple, repeating ostinato in the strings and snatches of melody from the guitar and occasional splashes of color from chimes and bowed vibraphone and the like. The desert analogy was apt -- tumbleweed here, cactus there, mountains in the distance, and all the while you keep rolling down that flat, dusty road. The third movement is one of those massive Adams wheels that takes some serious effort to build up momentum, but then once it gets spinning the force becomes totally overwheming as the waves just keep coming.
Or, at least I think it has the potential to sound like that. What Alan Gilbert presented was a total mess. I have no idea if he just didn't learn the piece, or if it was too big for his abilities, or if the orchestra didn't have enough rehearsal time. Basically he conducted mirrored beat patterns for 50 minutes, and gave a smattering of cues. I don't think he tried to conduct a single melody. The whole thing felt disjointed and lacked all forward motion. The second movement ground to a halt. The various cogs of the third movement never came together to create that wondrous Adams machine. And that poor first movement melody was shapeless and flaccid, because everyone seemed so concerned about counting. Frankly, I don't think he got the piece at all.
I mean, it's certainly not as if this orchestra isn't used to playing John's music. Listen to either of their recordings of Harmonium, under two different conductors, for proof that they knew how the third movement should go. And the concert I heard them do last month with MTT conducting Firebird and Sacre showed conclusively that they can still play balls to the wall. In fact, I'd even venture to say that that sort of ebullient, virtuosic, off-the-leash playing is what they do most convincingly.
Anyway, I was pretty pissed off during halftime, and couldn't even eat the brownie that OMC offered me. But at that point I just thought, well, he's not a good conductor. Maybe he always just stands there and beats time. But then he came out with Midori in the second half to do the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and I was like, who the fuck's this guy? Because suddenly he was hopping up and down and showing some, you know, interpretive ideas and conviction, and conducting expressively with his left arm, and generally leading the thing like he knew what was going on. Like he knew what he wanted the piece to say. And that's when I got really resentful -- because half-baked performances always result in people saying stupid shit like "oh, I don't like modern music."
(While I'm on the topic of stupid shit that people say, can the world wake up once and for all and stop calling John Adams a minimalist? OMC came away hearing Prokofiev and Scriabin, for fuck's sake. Case in point, more from Robert Commanday in 9/14/04's SFCV:
... The price is a minimalist "gimme," Steve Reich's Strings, with winds and brass, the kind of fluff that Tilson Thomas' inflated reputation as a contemporary-music advocate is based upon. ... Later in the season, Tilson Thomas has a guest conductor, Alan Gilbert, whom he could easily have asked to perform some worthy contemporary piece in one of the many interesting styles that don't appeal to him, but no. It's yet another piece by John Adams, Naïve and Sentimental Music, more from the minimalist orbit.
Another of the newer pieces is Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Screaming Popes. Turnage is a well-regarded British composer of music that is primarily harmonic in style, animated and influenced by jazz, with a rather direct and simple rhythmic impetus and texture. He studied with the important British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen... That is likely to be the most interesting and stimulating of the new-music offerings.
Turnage?!? Ok, if you're going to make that statement, 1) you should have gone down yourself to the Cabrillo Festival this summer to hear 3 Screaming Popes, because it is neither all that nor even a bag of chips... I dunno about you, but I prefer to be stimulated in other ways; 2) you should listen to Salonen's recording of Naive & Sentimental to determine for real whether it's a good piece and not just go on prejudice, and 3) if you've listened to anything that Adams has written since, like, 1987, how ludicrous is it to relegate him to 'the minimalist orbit'? Anyway, enough ranting; back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
There are caveats, of course. Never sit in the rear boxes in the back of the hall under the overhang; they are terrible seats! The audience seemed to respond positively, despite my grumpiness. And I heard through the grapevine that Adams himself seemed pleased. So maybe I'm off-base here. All I can say is, this concert didn't make me anxious to hear more from Alan Gilbert.
As for the Beethoven, I think if Bjork played the violin she would move just like Midori. (New Bjork video just released, btw, for Who Is It.) As Joshua Kosman says delicately, a 'restrained' performance. But the credenzas were marvelously played; she used Kreisler's, full of double-stop goodness.