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CLASSICAL  May 2006

CLASSICAL May 2006

Subject:

On the Road with John Adams

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 22 May 2006 05:08:12 -0700

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        John Adams
        Road Movies

*  Road Movies (1995)**
*  Hallelujah Junction (1996)*^
*  China Gates (1977)*
*  American Bersek (2001)*
*  Phrygian Gates (1977)^

** Leila Josefowicz (violin), John Novacek (piano)
* Nicolas Hodges (piano)
^ Rolf Hind (piano)
Nonesuch 79699-2 Total time: 67:26

Summary for the Busy Executive>: Movies in black and white.

The scintillating surface of most minimalism depends greatly on the
composer's ability to orchestrate.  The surface twinkles because the
orchestra does.  Adams has affinities with minimalism yet doesn't seem
of> it.  If he were, he'd be one of the most maximal minimal composers
around.  Then again, Adams moved off of pure minimalism very early,
although some of the techniques occasionally reappear in works not
particularly minimalist.  Adams's surfaces these days arise from complex
counterpoint of complex material.  The separate planes of melodic activity,
rather than the colors, sparkle.  All the more important, then, to provide
a varied, clear instrumentation that allows you to distinguish the
individual strands.  In a composer like Glass, color provides much of
the interest.  In Adams, color illuminates structure.

Thus, Adams's chamber music, with a color palette stripped down to that
available to one or two performers, raises a point that goes to the heart
of its character.  Does the music hold its interest when it eschews an
orchestral or quasi-orchestral range of timbre?  As far as the program
on this CD goes, the verdict is mixed, but the absence of orchestral
Technicolor does uncover some interesting points about Adams's music.

The question is answered in a resounding affirmative with the very first
piece, Road Movies.  Of course, Leila Josefowicz on the violin and her
accompanist, John Novacek, certainly help.  The first movement is largely
ostinato, and both players get an extraordinary amount of phrase variation
out of those passages, largely through a mastery of dynamics and
articulation.

Josefowicz has long seemed to me the Real Deal among the violin prodigies.
She's already a better musician than Midori, and a finer technician than
Chang.  She also shows a greater range than Hahn.  Hahn, within a certain
emotional groove, sings brilliantly, but it so far has proved a narrow
groove, mainly lyrical.  I'm not so sure I'd want to hear Hahn in a truly
bravura work. I don't know what she'd make of Road Movies, for example,
particularly the last movement.

Adams's second movement, slow and contemplative, has a bit of a blues
feel to it.  The first movement seems to me a descendent of Stravinsky's
"Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto and Reich's Music for 18 Musicians; the second,
a combination of Gershwin and Copland (and if Copland were alive to read
this, he'd probably be annoyed by the comparison).  The movement combines
Gershwin's big-city melancholy (see the second movement of the Concerto
in F) with Copland's big-sky loneliness and spareness.  The finale is
all jumps and jitters, with bits of fiddle music abstracted and occasionally
swung like a samba. It brings to mind Villa-Lobos's "Little Train of the
Caipira" on amphetamines.

In Hallelujah Junction, the Stravinskian element comes more to the front.
Long stretches of the Adams remind me of the Russian's Concerto for 2
Pianos Soli.  It's the bright Stravinskian bell-like sonorities that
first capture the ear.  Again, one encounters the composer's fascination
with ostinato and perpetuum mobile, probably part of the attraction to
minimalism in the first place.  But this isn't merely that, since the
"ostinato" comes out of brilliant, quick counterpoint.  The piece serves
to display Adams's virtuoso counterpoint, and Hodges and Hind just play
the bejabbers out of it.  A terrific piece, it leaves you breathless.

I'm less enamored of the earlier pieces, China Gates and Phrygian Gates.
I prefer China Gates, which evokes for me Indonesian gamelan, in no small
measure because it doesn't last as long.  Moreover, Hodges picks out
little melodies from the burbling textures and gives me other reasons
to like it.

I've never cared for Phrygian Gates, in any of its incarnations.  It
alternates between Phrygian (E to E' on the white keys of the piano) and
Lydian (F to F' on the white keys) modes.  Maybe my dissatisfaction comes
down to those two modes, both of which over the long haul become to me
increasingly flaccid, but mostly the work puts me to sleep.  And it goes
on two minutes short of forever.  Hind doesn't change my mind, but he
plays it as well as or even better than I've heard it.

American Berserk (the fantastic title comes from Philip Roth) strikes
me as an update of Ives's "Hawthorne" movement from the "Concord" Sonata.
Adams's textures are cleaner, but the strong underlay of ragtime and the
bustle and shove of the piece evoke the busy-ness of American life, just
as Ives did.

Despite my dislike of Phrygian Gates, this is one terrific disc.  The
performers play with all brain cells firing.  Even more, the engineering
stands out, with terrific clarity and separation that allows you to
distinguish the various layers that contribute to Adams's textures.
Moreover, the engineer tricks you into believing this is "natural."

Steve Schwartz

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