Photo by Christian Steiner
John Adams’ Violin Concerto swept through the cheering Disney Hall crowd last weekend like the fingers of a perfect massage. There is no showoff piece quite like this; memories of sloe-eyed moppets fiddling away at their Wieniawski and Bruch, of overage adolescents jiggling fingers at wind-up Mendelssohn piano concertos (and drawing wind-up “bravos” from uncomprehending crowds), vanish in its path. Adams’ concerto is harder to play than any of the above, but you get the constant impression that it is there on the stage to tell us something about itself. What that might be you have to guess; the tone of Leila Josefowicz’s performance last Friday — with excellent support, by the way, in the debut of guest conductor Mikko Franck, Finnish, blond and in his 20s (sound familiar?) — told me things about the work different from what I learn from the Gidon Kremer recording on Nonesuch.
Adams’ own description of his concerto in a program note — “a throwback to traditional means of discourse and syntax” — is quite beside the point. The amazement in this work is the intensity of the discourse, which overrides matters of syntax. I know of few other works, concerto or any other genre, in which the argument among elements is carried through so powerfully and with greater conviction among the arguing parties. Violin and orchestra slither past one another from the get-go; the first movement seems a single breath. Then there is a pause, then further discourse of overwhelming sadness, brought on by soft harmonies from a synthesizer. Finally comes a new level of chaos, wherein soloist and orchestra have at each other nonstop, broken into once when the orchestra calls for rescue from something sounding like the final dance of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. The end is no ending at all, merely a stop as though the battle has just moved to another planet out of earshot.
I could have this scenario all wrong, of course; it’s interesting that the New York City Ballet was one of the co-commissioners of the work. It would be fascinating to conceive someone else’s take besides mine, but difficult to imagine the concertmaster of a ballet orchestra with the chops to manage such a killer solo part. Josefowicz had the chops the other night, as she did at London’s Barbican, when I heard her play the work in 2002 during a glowing weekend of all-Adams. In the Kremer recording I hear a higher level of ferocity, and, perhaps, a deeper emotion during the impassioned slow movement. That the work engages the mind and the fingers of two such remarkable contemporary musicians is commentary enough on the quality of the work.
On successive Disney evenings, earlier in the week, the first of the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella programs presented four works of purported newness, and Brian Wilson brought on the restoration and completion of his 38-year-old Smile. There’s always a temptation in my line of work to reach for the easy paradox. I cannot, nevertheless, stifle the conviction that on the latter of those two evenings my spirit rose considerably higher to the lure of freshness and novelty. At the Wilson event I had the sense that I was being spoken to by all those musicians onstage, through all their massive gadgetry — which included a speaker system that may have left my personal auditory apparatus permanently maimed — in a way that I had not been reached the night before.
Let’s start with that night before. It began with one of Henry Brant’s “spatial” pieces, Tremors, which the Philharmonic New Music Group, plus some outsiders, had also played during an all-Brant concert in the Getty Center’s smallish Williams Auditorium last June. Would it help, the question ran, to redeem the work in Disney’s larger space? Not at all, my answer runs; it simply wasted more space with the same awful music. Brant, at 91, cute and tiny, woos the crowd with his error-packed speeches about the spacy music of the past, not a note of which justifies his contemporary scratching, the ache of its nothingness.
Gabriela Frank’s Leyendas sought to transfer the sounds of native Andean instruments to a string quartet but succeeded merely in reproducing a kind of salon-style Villa-Lobos; a couple of maracas might have helped, or at least a digression out from the clichés of a rather hidebound Latin manner. Harold Meltzer’s Virginal used a chamber ensemble — strings, winds, harp and solo harpsichord — to construct what sounded to me like a large solo harpsichord piece backed by a particularly well-placed amplification system. Both works, by composers in their 30s
and accompanied by impressive lists of awards and commissions, did something, I suppose, to expand our view of what goes on elsewhere in the world of composers, but that view so far is slightly dim.
Nor was it brightened by the evening’s “star” attraction, Mason Bates’ Omnivorous Furniture — commissioned by the Philharmonic’s New Music Group, underwritten by Peter Gelles and Eve Steele Gelles and the commission fund set up in memory of the much-loved, much-missed education director Sue Knussen. Bates — the 27-year-old hip-hopster and underground denizen of scenes as diverse as San Francisco and Rome — might lead one to expect, in his announced work “for sinfonietta and electronica,” something mildly shocking, sufficiently off-the-wall as to send an aging critic to younger friends for help in updating his set of definitions. Why, then, did I leave this predictable and ho-hum piece of music with nothing more diverting in my head than Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven theme, which, I swear to you, I had been hearing for the past 20 or so minutes?
The Wilson concert had me at seat’s edge at the start —
a glorious cover of “Sloop John B,” which I’d been singin’ along to since the Kingston Trio days. The evening was pure velvet from then on: Wilson’s superb traveling band, with some added instruments in from Sweden, the orchestration with genuine depth,
the solo winds cutting across the ensemble as though someone had bothered to look at the counterpoint in, maybe, a Bach Brandenburg. Smile itself, the new version, took up the second half, a continuous (46’59”) pop-vocal-symphonic sequence: not the first of its kind, but the first that really works as well as this. The credit here divides straight down: Van Dyke Parks’ angelic wisdom — does anybody besides me remember his Song Cycle
of 1968? — and the energy and depth of Wilson’s sound concept. Beside Radiohead and Sonic Youth and all these new developments that are supposed to push my horizons back a few
notches, Smile is positively retro. In the context of my musical adventures this particular week, its restorative powers have
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