Notes and Editorial Reviews
These compositions, completed in 2003, represent Adams’s first work for large orchestra since Naïve and Sentimental Music (1997–98). Their titles alone hint at recurring themes in his œuvre: large outdoor spaces, and Charles Ives, a touchstone most recently invoked in the passages for trumpet solo in On the Transmigration of Souls. The program notes comprise detailed descriptions of these highly contrasted pieces written by Adams; the many autobiographical references illuminate the unusually personal nature of these works. I should stress that references made to the work of other composers in the review that follows should not be interpreted to mean that this music is merely derivative; they are included here merely as a guide.
The Dharma at Big Sur is one of Adams’s landscape pieces, in both the literal and figurative senses: inspired by the eponymous California coast and by the writing of Jack Kerouac, Adams wanted to evoke the sensation of seeing that coast for the first time (the cover photos by Edward Weston are a nice touch). As he has said about his music, Adams paints with a big brush; I would add that he employs a big canvas as well, and this piece is a prime example. The electric violin extends the range of the normal instrument, so that it can sound like a viola, with deep, resonant tones; the amplification often serves to give the sound a fuzz-tone edge. Cast in two continuous movements, the music is reminiscent of traditional Indian style combined with techniques borrowed from improvisatory jazz and world music, (though the orchestral music reminds me of Ingram Marshall). In the first section, called “A New Day,” the orchestra serves as a drone against which the violin explores a range of expressive motives. In rhapsodic phrases that grow increasingly emphatic, even passionate, the violin questions, probes, yearns; as the section nears its climax, the orchestra becomes a more active partner, harking back to the shimmering, quivering strings of Shaker Loops and the pianos of Grand Pianola Music. After a short transition, the second section, titled “Sri Moonshine,” introduces a soloist more in keeping with “classical” violin concerto style. This is a more propulsive piece, chugging forward as the solo violin darts and stabs with bravura abandon—Adams likens the solo part to “a seagull moving in a windstorm.” The second half of this section is initially less purely propulsive, as the violin once again explores more extended phrases, accompanied by a pensive orchestra. But soon the orchestra becomes, in Adams’s words, a “gigantic, pulsing gamelan,” building to a chiming, ecstatic climax as the soloist resumes his whirlwind rhapsody. There is nothing terribly complicated about this music, but I found its powerful simplicity quite compelling; not incidentally, Tracy Silverman is an entirely persuasive soloist.
One may wonder at the decision to present these works on two separate discs when they could have been accommodated on one, with time to spare (the set retails at slightly more than single-disc price). But one listen to My Father Knew Charles Ives (the title is not meant to be taken literally) makes the arrangement seem logical: the two pieces are from different worlds. Adams, the transplanted New Englander, is channeling his New England forefather. The piece is in three movements titled “Concord,” “The Lake,” and “The Mountain.” The connection with the “Concord” Sonata is obvious, but Ives also composed pieces called “The Pond” and “From the Steeples and the Mountains.” Adams’s titles serve as a reminder of the originals without quoting them.
“Concord” invokes the ghosts of such pieces as “Putnam’s Camp,” “Central Park in the Dark,” “Washington’s Birthday,” and the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. A mysterious, amorphous orchestra underpins a solo trumpet (played by Bill Houghton) that reminds us of An Unanswered Question, but also of Tromba lontana (and probably Copland’s Quiet City, too). Erupting into this placid setting is a raucous cacophony of half-finished, half-heard band tunes. As Adams writes, “you’re certain you’ve heard this music before, but you’re damned if you can identify it”; the composer assures us that they are fictive, though “Reveille” is lifted from Ives’s Second Symphony, and a bit of “Nearer My God to Thee” recalls the Second Orchestral Set. This is such an obvious homage that I’m only surprised that someone hasn’t done it before; I doubt, however, that anyone could have done it as convincingly and with such joy. “The Lake” opens with shimmering strings and tinkling percussion, punctuated by the tuba emulating the horn of a steamer. A meandering oboe melody, sounding initially like the call of a loon, wanders over the surface, as other instruments make passing remarks. A dance melody begins, evoking the kind of orchestra in which Adams’s father played clarinet—I suspect that this is the most personal of the three pieces (the clarinet was also the younger Adams’s instrument, and its solo is a prominent feature of the interlude). The oboe returns, as do the strings, and the piece ends as it began. Large spaces are the theme of “The Mountain,” and the solo trumpet returns, more frankly reminiscent of The Unanswered Question than in the first piece. The feeling is both Ivesian and Adamsian, as volume and emphasis increase, and we feel propelled into—or above—the landscape. That other New England composer, Carl Ruggles, also wrote about mountains, and there is a passing nod from the timpani in his direction as well. After about three minutes, the music settles into Adams mode and we’re in familiar territory—a chugging, pulsing theme that propels us forward, as though racing to the summit. Suddenly the momentum ceases, and we are staring into icy space, amidst yearning violins, deep tones from cellos and basses, and chiming percussion—and that’s where Adams leaves us, contemplating the infinite.
I have spent every available minute with this music since receiving the discs, and in the space of that brief time I’ve found more to admire than in most other recent works. These two pieces, so utterly different yet bearing their composer’s watermark, are instantly appealing but offer the promise of wearing well, and I would hazard a guess that they are dear to their composer’s heart. The sound production accommodates the scale and variety, and the extreme dynamic contrasts, embodied in these remarkable compositions. It only remains to be said that Adams is his own best advocate, conducting performances of power and beauty.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
The Dharma at Big Sur by John Adams
Tracy Silverman (Electric Violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2003; California
Length: 26 Minutes 55 Secs.
Notes: EMI Abbey Road Studios, London, UK (08/23/2004); Skywalker Ranch, Nicasio, California (04/08/2006)
My Father Knew Charles Ives by John Adams
William Houghton (Trumpet)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2003; California
Date of Recording: 01/27/2005
Venue: Walthamstow Town Hall, London, England
Length: 26 Minutes 37 Secs.
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