Spring Symphonies: 30/60 John Adams: Chamber Symphony

This is the last of this little series and it ends with a living composer which I thought fitting.
John Adams Chamber Symphony (1992) followed the lead of Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony though he added a few instruments to Schönberg’s ensemble.  His major feat was to create a hard (to play) work for a small body of players which still has symphonic and popular impact.  In many ways he returned to the idea of a symphony that Haydn or Mozart would recognise - making an entertaining and interesting piece which is structured but also captures the more popular music of the time. Not only the music either - the sounds of the time too with varied percussion and synthesiser and amplification.  It stays rooted in Adams’ style and gives us his view of what a modern chamber symphony might offer.

The first movement is entitled Mongrel Airs: this is a allusion to a British critics view that Adams’ music lacks pedigree.  A nonsensical view clearly: it’s one that can be thrown at virtually every composer.  The sound of this movement is typical of Adams - brisk, highly defined melodic lines of clear timbres woven together to bring a rich aural tapestry to life, but not necessarily easy to follow given Adams love of repeated phrases.  He scores this movement for something akin to a high grade blue grass ensemble but actually much bigger and better than that.  The interesting progressive accretion of melodies and timbres on top of each other makes for a devilish first acquaintance.  But persist and you’ll find moments that intrigue and entertain.  Its something of an acquired taste for those who like big orchestra Adams - but if you know Gnarly Buttons then you’ll be accustomed to this heady mix of squeaks, squawks and strong complex rhythmic drive. 

The second movement, Aria with Walking Bass couldn’t be more straightforward.  There’s a lot to enjoy here - both in the fresh and upbeat scoring and the ebb and flow of complexity in the counterpoint.  The pace picks up abruptly and then relents - it’s a bit of battle there after with fast music over this superbly rich bass line which seems steadfast.  This is jaunty music - never so far from it’s roots that the listener is deserted by the composer.  Again there are moments to savour - such as the high clarinet singing over the lower one which warbles a pedal all the way to the movement’s close.

The last movement is fast and aptly named Roadrunner.  Adams aligns this work and this movement in particular with the cartoon music that his son was listening to in the room next door when he was preparing for the work.  He says the mood of cartoon scores match the mood of the Schönberg Chamber Symphony - he’s right of course.  This movement just presses on, mimicking the invention of a score by Scott Bradley (Tom and Jerry) and it is as bewildering.  Cartoon music without pictures is of course a new thing but it is fiendish to play and brilliantly febrile in the imagination as we take it in.  The fast paced cartoon might not be though of as a classical music, but when we reach the levels of sophistication of Bradley’s scores we’re in that ball park.  Such peices, without the pictures, become reckless enterprises for conductors and orchestras - open to all sorts of deviation.  For the audience they become formless stream of consciousness music - fantastic, improvised (in the mind) and often very witty.

I think the bigger picture here is not the muscular angularity of both Adams’ inspirations - but a great attempt to wrestle Schönberg’s invention away from the idea that it’s a cerebral exercise for the listener.  Adams creates an immediate and telling emotional connection (like the great classical masters and like the masters of the cartoon score) not least because the scale of the work which is more intimate than a symphony orchestra can allow.  To my mind the makes it that rare thing in our time - a very accessible symphony.  I love it’s energy, it’s intricacy and invention.

Here’s a clip of Nicholas Collon conducting the Aurora Orchestra in the last movement


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