Saturday, October 06, 2007

Essays Before a Tone Poem - Charles Ives According to John Adams

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra @ The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD
October 6, 2007

John Adams, conductor
Sanford Sylvan, baritone

John Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives
John Adams: The Wound-Dresser
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

Fulfilling the promise of an engaging 2007/2008 season laced with contemporary works, the Baltimore Symphony handed the baton over to composer John Adams for a balanced program of Adams and ("that other guy") Beethoven. Not content with just a baton and two of his own pieces on the program, Adams also brought a microphone. His current popularity is at least partially fueled by his charisma. His brief descriptions and explanations of each work were light on technical detail and perfectly targeted for the large, sympathetic audience at the concert hall. He also proved to be a brilliant conductor as well.

Compositionally, I'm still on the fence with John Adams. My Father Knew Charles Ives is the most recent Adams work I've heard - having been composed in 2002 - and it was the more interesting of the two pieces. As an homage to the great music of Charles Ives it proved to be extremely literal with the second movement being an exact interpretation of the concept behind Central Park in the Dark. The differences between Ives and Adams composing within an Ives conceptual aesthetic were striking. The polymetric and polytonal textures were scaled way back. And where Ives would quote many marches and hymn tunes Adams chose to compose original materials in the style of marches, hymn tunes and swing music. While skillfully arranged, and sonically sublime, it felt as if Adams had reworked the aesthetic of Ives into something more broadly accessible and I longed for the more satisfyingly dissonant bite of the original.

The Wound-Dresser
is a setting of Walt Whitman's graphic descriptions of treating the wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. The language drives the formal structure of this music and the words didn't always emerge with clarity for this particular performance, resulting in a drifting, clouded interpretation. Composed just one year after Fearful Symmetries, the texture was a striking departure from the pulsing minimalism one might expect from his 1980's works. John Adams has an excellent sense of orchestration. Though I'm at a loss as to where his own conceptual ideas begin in his reworking of conceptual territories opened up by Glass, Ives, Reich and others. It may be his reworking of these ideas that serves as an important conduit toward opening up symphonic audiences toward a broader orchestral repertoire as major symphonies begin dipping a cautious toe into modern waters.

As for the Symphony No. 7 of Beethoven, John Adams nailed it in both his pre-performance description and excellent conducting. The Beethoven symphonies are indeed "mind-numbingly familiar" and "constantly renewing" and this performance reinforced both the familiar and the reward of engaging with this music head on. The lyrical second movement doesn't get any better than the balanced performance that Adams evoked from the players on this evening.

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