Prom 4: High Voltage Adams
Its worth saying that there are plenty of opportunities nowadays to hear composers conducting and hear them conducting their own works. John Adams is, I think, one of the the most stimulating composers around and he’s also a very fine conductor - probably finer than he knows and for which he is given credit. So this was an great treat - a top rank composer conducting his music and music that has influenced him - with a fantastic orchestra.
The pieces on the programme all present challenges both for the listener and the orchestra and his team of elite young players from two of the most prestigious learning centres in the world addressed the technical and musical issues with relish and skill. Only in the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto did their lack of experience show and then it was through a failure of boldness to attack music which is soft and gentle: hard to bring off. Imogen Cooper as ever was a pristine soloist - delicacy was never surrendered in favour of flamboyance. That's not to say she was without verve and mettle - dazzling when the score allows but her meditative solo at the beginning of the slow movement was a mesmeric lullaby.....until that is, some idiot’s phone went off.
The hall was only about two thirds full and those who forswore the Adams missed a thrilling and boisterous account of Respighi’s Feste Romane (the least well known and least heard of his Roman triptych). It is a piece that demands a huge orchestra - and of course youth orchestras often have players aplenty. This orchestra was set up with 18 first violins, 10 cellists, 10 bassists and 10 percussion players. it was my good fortune too to be stood next to the pipes of the vast Albert Hall organ when I discovered its presence in the score too. Off stage trumpets and piano all added to the mix.
It is a brilliant piece of impressionistic writing punctuated with the lyrical moments as in the reflections on Pines and Fountains in Rome by the same composer. And there are numerous references to music familiar to Romans too which enliven its melodic progress. Adams handled this all so well even the kitsch moments and moreover he delivers it with such enthusiasm and bold precision that the young orchestra gets carried along too. His gestures look effortful - but the music sounds effortless. Lyricism was savoured and the climaxes build with a ferocious detail. I hope the radio listeners felt that too. I was left wanting to know more about the piece and to hear the triptych as a programme.
After the interval we had City Noir by John Adams has yet to get a recording which is available in teh UK. Deutsche Grammophon refuse to release their recording of the world premiere by the LA Phil under Dudemel here - though it is available in the States. So I direct you to two performances on YouTube - that premiere and the Netherlands premiere conducted by Adams with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Both of these are first rate though the piece is still bedding in. In the Netherlands performance Adams signals to the audience that the first movement is over and two more remain: he did the same in London.The two fingers probably having a greater comic effect in London.
City Noir is also the third (and final?) part of a line of works which bring us close to Adams’ view of his home state, California. El Dorado (1991) and Dharma at Big Sur (2003) explore the big issues of that often larger than life state which for all its agriculture has come to dominate our picture of America more than any other. The current work which was premiered in 2009 covers the city of Los Angeles but through a cinematic prism. It is described by Adams as a symphony: its structure is of alternate soft and hard music: sometimes a beautiful reminiscence of film scores past and at other times a pointed description of some of the more visceral, violent associations we have with the City of Angels.
Adams leaded his work with customary vigour and exacting precision, but as one might expect with the cream of both institutions at his disposal he got virtuosity and gusto aplenty from the orchestra. The work slides through influences like Milhaud and Ravel though not surprisingly I heard some of Respighi’s crowd scenes in there too. Adams hints, nudges and sometimes slams pictorial references with a master’s facility and his players pulled the music up by its roots when required - 10 basses make the allusion to a locomotive chugging hesitantly out of its station so much more tangible.
There are exposed solos for brass and saxophone in the work and those players filled the rapt hall. The strings unified under their two leaders played with fantastic unity. This was their second concert in three days having aired this programme in New York and perhaps the orchestra were growing together. At the end Adams delivers one of his abrupt endings turning of the motor in the middle of the freeway. It disappointed the man stood next to me in the Gallery. I love it.
He hugged and congratulate his young charges and they deserved every bit of the long and hard applause. This new fascinating work got a pristine airing and that was brilliant. Adams look pleased - I think he nailed it.