Ives: Three Places in New England
Conductor: Yuga Cohler
Conductor: Gemma New
Adams: Shaker Loops
Conductor: Karina Canellakis
Conductor: Gemma New
Gordon: Yo Shakespeare
Conductor: Yuga Cohler
Back for more American Landscapes on Thursday evening with my friend Linden this time, I was heartened to scope out an almost full Zankel Hall. I, however, found such a huge difference in size from the evening before rather puzzling, and after giving it some thought, I came to the non-proven conclusion that the presence of John Adams' first minimalist hit Shaker Loops might have had something to do with it. Or the offer of four works instead of three, for whoever is counting. Or the promise of some (gasp!) bona fide rock and roll sounds, if not aesthetics, as a reward for sitting through the first three pieces of the concert. In any case, whatever it was, it worked.
As he did on Wednesday night, David Robertson first came onstage, explained the mission of the American Landscapes workshop and introduced the first piece on the program, Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. Still reeling from his schizophrenic Symphony No 4, I was preparing myself for a massive impact that never really came. The first movement, "The St. Gaudens' in Boston Common", which is dedicated to the first Union Army regimen that included black soldiers, blossomed with delicate transparency, brightly perked up a bit, and ended in a gentle whisper. The second movement, "Putman's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" about the Revolutionary War memorial park, was an upbeat tribute to big bands and exuberant patriotic celebrations. The third movement, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge", which was inspired by a Sunday morning walk with his new wife, resumed the contemplative mood of the opening and even featured a few suspended magical moments. The ensemble of first-rate young musicians and the non-simultaneous two conductors provided a clear, warm and totally satisfying performance of it. Again, most of the Americana references escaped me, but the music itself could easily stands of its own and it nicely did.
Although I am not particularly familiar with modern music, I had heard and immediately loved Shaker Loops a few years back when John Adams was doing a residency at the Kennedy Center, so I was naturally thrilled by the opportunity of hearing it live again. When he introduced it, the composer mentioned that had he known how popular it would become, he would have made it a better piece. Well, in my humble opinion, it is awfully good as it is. On Thursday night, Shaker Loops decisively kicked off with its instantaneously recognizable driving pulse that led the way into a wild adventure in music-making during which harmonies, melodies and rhythms created an ever-changing yet tightly woven tapestry of very cool string sound effects. Its devilishly complex nature was deftly handled by Karina Canellakis, who had all seven string players deliver a relentlessly hypnotic, highly energetic performance of it, which a beaming John Adams seemingly approved of without reservations.
After those two easily accessible works, we started to let our guards down and relax, but that was counting without the rude awakening that was Andrew Norman's Try, with the Brooklynite composer checking out the Carnegie Hall premiere of his piece among the audience. Staging a grandly theatrical fight between a piano and the rest of a small orchestra, the work consisted in cacophonous outbursts repeatedly trying to shut out the resilient piano. Lo and behold, the little guy eventually won, but not before the cluttered tug of war had overextended its welcome despite the genuine eagerness of musicians and conductor.
Another Carnegie Hall premiere was Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare. Beside the unusual sight of electric cords and amps on Zankel Hall's stage, the 13 musicians divided into three separate groups also formed an uncommonly eclectic ensemble of amplified and acoustic instruments. Even if they did not actually play according to the same score, a choice that in the wrong hands could have been a ready recipe for disaster, the combination of the three simultaneous musical forces yielded a rather odd, totally groovy and ultimately fascinating result. The intriguing title turned out to be an insider's joke about the lack of cultural awareness of one of the composer's friends, Shakespeare being the only name he can think of in that regard, a sad commentary that was remarkably in line with the caustic observation about the current cultural dumbing down in this country made by John Adams the night before, followed by his marked and justified enthusiasm at seeing young composers, musicians and conductors bravely fighting the good fight for a better future for all music lovers. May the force be with them.