Notes and Editorial Reviews
Son of Chamber Symphony.
John Adams, cond; International Contemporary Ens;
St. Lawrence Str Qrt
NONESUCH 523014 (53:50)
John Adams has an interesting relationship with Arnold Schoenberg. One of Adams’s largest and most successful orchestral pieces,
, was named after the scholarly work by his predecessor, and now he has composed his second chamber symphony, again like the Viennese master. But these works are only kindred on the surface. Adams has always considered Schoenberg’s music to be a trial (he refers to him in his program note as “that fearsomely serious party pooper of all time”), and his two chamber symphonies owe more to the world of classic cartoons and cinema than to the rarified air of the Schoenberg salon.
Adams has never been afraid of humor, and the title of this new piece for chamber ensemble should be a clue to its character, summoning thoughts of such films as
Son of Paleface
Son of Frankenstein
also comes to mind). The first of three movements opens with, to quote the composer, a “dropping octave ‘dactyl’ rhythm,” with playful swoops around a basic pulse that soon becomes fragmented; the vibe is more Gershwin and Bernstein than its putative progenitor, with “jabs and pecks from brass and percussion” before the texture thins out and the piece ends with a series of stop-start episodes. We’re in the same general ballpark as the Chamber Symphony and
, but compared to the first movement of the former, the feeling here is jazzier and far less chaotic.
What follows is another of Adams’s pensive middle movements. It opens with, in the composer’s words, “a long, lyrical cantilena for flute and clarinet sung over a quietly strumming continuum in celesta and pizzicato strings,” followed by another lyrical excursion for solo violin and cello. This is music of quiet beauty over a restless continuo that becomes increasingly harried and agitated. With the return of the initial melody, the sarcastic and mocking tone of the accompanying ensemble muscles out the lyrical theme. Finally, things settle into the quiet strumming of the opening.
The fast-paced, scurrying nature of the third movement fits the characteristic bravura style of an Adams finale. He had initially considered naming the movement “Can-can,” but ultimately decided that this might be misleading. Adams notes a family resemblance to music from
Nixon in China
, and there is a brief nod to
. This is more of Adams’s high-energy, rhythmically complex dance music, suitable for a fast
or a scene from a Marx Brothers movie.
It’s almost too much of a coincidence that Adams’s second chamber symphony is accompanied on this disc by a string quartet; Schoenberg’s first string quartet was composed just a year before he began work on the Second Chamber Symphony. I think we should make a distinction between “a string quartet” and “music for string quartet”; the former suggests a tradition, while the latter allows more latitude. Adams has written music for string quartet:
John’s Book of Alleged Dances,
a series of 10 pieces, was written for the Kronos Quartet, which duly recorded it. In addition to their own instruments, the four players are accompanied by a percussion track originally created on a sampling keyboard.
Adams is aware of the tradition to which he has now contributed: “Normally impatient with traditional titles, I uncharacteristically defaulted to ‘String Quartet’ for this one. The only other time I’d employed such a generic title was with the 1993 Violin Concerto. It may be that the choice of such an unadorned name for both works reflected a certain awe that I felt in approaching the medium.” Adams being Adams, however, the work is unusual in being composed in one long first movement and a much shorter second one. The piece lasts about 30 minutes, two-thirds of that duration being devoted to the first movement.
The Quartet opens with shimmering phrases punctuated by pizzicato pecks from the cello, followed by fragments of melody that slowly elongate over the shimmering background. The arching melodic phrases, with their swoops and jabs, are somewhat reminiscent of music composed by members of the Second Viennese School a century ago. This first movement is cast in four sections of unequal length, the first being the longest. The second section is quieter, led by solo violin; phrases again grow longer, interrupted by moments of silence. This section can evoke feelings of yearning or regret, though Adams characterizes it simply as a “passage of becalmed stasis.” A scherzo section of “fractured dance steps and high-wire melodies for the violins” follows; the movement ends with a more muted imitation of the busy opening music.
The second movement begins with stuttering, fragmented phrases, a “high-strung, nervous staccato that charges the entire remaining movement with driven energy,” to be interrupted on occasion by more lyrical moments. One can’t help but marvel at the enormous reserves of energy required for a performance of this piece. As Adams writes, “I make the kind of ensemble and emotional demands on the players that are only possible in the exhilarating and utopian world of virtuoso chamber music.”
The sound production for both pieces is close and detailed, perfectly suited to music of this scale. While neither piece seems to be blazing any particularly new trails, both works add depth to an
that continues to inspire and entertain. Recommended for Adams fans and those with a taste for the humorous and adventurous in contemporary music.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams
International Contemporary Ensemble
Written: 2007; USA
Venue: Sear Sound, New York, NY
Length: 23 Minutes 9 Secs.
String Quartet by John Adams
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Period: 21st Century
Written: 2008; USA
Venue: Rolston Recital Hall, The Banff Centre,
Length: 21 Minutes 20 Secs.
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