Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Adams: Absolute Jest, for String Quartet and Orchestra
New York Philharmonic String Quartet
I am not sure what was in U.S. water back in 1947, but it had to be something good since both Philip Glass and John Adams were born that year, which consequently means that this year marks their 70th birthdays. Philip Glass celebrated his at Carnegie Hall with his long-time buddy Dennis Russell Davies who brought his Bruckner Orchestra Linz back in January, and John Adams had Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform two works of his at David Geffen Hall last week. Apparently being a prominent composer comes with nice perks these days.
I have been exploring John Adams' impressively eclectic œuvre more or less randomly for years now, starting in earnest with the Kennedy Center's John Adams Perspectives back in 2010, during which the composer himself took part in many introductions and discussions, and continuing to this day pretty much every chance I get.
My last concert featuring his music – and his presence – was at the Berlin Philharmonic last September, and I was delighted when I found out that the Harmonielehre that I had enjoyed so much on that memorable evening was going to be on the NY Phil's program, accompanied by Absolute Jest, a tribute to Beethoven that doubles as a creative exercise. A program so exciting that my friend Angie simply had to join me and find out for herself what the fuss was all about.
Before the concert started, John Adams, introduced as "the dean of American new music" by Alan Gilbert, provided fun and insightful information about the pieces selected for the evening, complete with excerpts performed by the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, a brand new deluxe ensemble consisting of no less than the orchestra's four string principals.
Then we all got to hear Absolute Jest in a more enlightened state of mind. And if the whole thing felt a bit discombobulated at times, it was still an engrossing experience featuring quotes from Beethoven's Eroica, Ninth Symphony, and Op. 131 and 135, among others, ingeniously springing out like distinguished surprise guests courtesy of the glowing quartet. From those carefully selected snippets came out Adams' high-spirited composition, which was enthusiastically performed by the rest of the orchestra, the potentially uneasy relation between smaller and bigger ensembles having been completely smoothed over for a harmonious result.
After intermission, we got to indulge in what is widely considered to be one of Adams' most brilliant and engaging works, which is quite a compliment considering the breadth of his output. A symphony in all but name, Harmonielehre has to be the most perfect cocktail of Minimalism (a little) and Late Romanticism (a lot) ever, an unabashedly compelling composition overflowing with big brush strokes of lush lyricism that exploded with vivid colors, beautifully soaring melodies that seemed to have a vibrant life of their own, and some highly rythmical sequences to remind us that, even if he's never been a die-hard Minimalist, the man sure knows how to make clever use of the movement's core principles.
A thrilling ride propelled by an irresistible pulse worthy of a road movie, Harmonielehre has remained as fresh and fun as when it first came out in the mid-1980s. On Thursday evening, the terrific performance by the New York Philharmonic was full of exhilarating sounds and positive momentum, a visibly energized Alan Gilbert happily in charge of the excellent adventure. And this crowd-pleaser did in fact totally please the crowd, as the long and loud ovation could attest.