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Monday, January 29, 2007

John Adams at the Barbican

I've been a bit quiet here recently. The last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic with the build-up to my choir's AGM. Regular and eagle-eyed readers will have noted that I've now taken over as Chair of the chorus - a prospect that simultaneously fills me with fear and excitement.

Last night, we did manage to get out: to the Barbican Centre for a London Symphony Orchestra concert of music by John Adams, conducted by the composer. Adams is one of my idols, yet the main piece of the evening, On the Transmigration of Souls, remains something of a bĂȘte noir for me. It has always left me a little cold, so I was looking forward to finding out whether my first live experience of the work would change my mind.

The first of the half of the concert included two works: The Dharma at Big Sur for electric violin and orchestra, and Slonimsky's Earbox, neither of which I was familiar with. Earbox is obviously a significant work for the composer, lending its name to his official website and self-avowedly marking an important turning point in his music. In it, Adams looks towards Russian musical influences, primarily to Stravinsky, but also to a friend from his early years on the West Coast, Nicholas Slonimsky, author of a thesaurus of musical motifs and patterns. It proved to be a good choice to open the concert, its overture-like character and lightness of feeling easing the packed hall into Adams's characteristic Californian groove. This was the first time I'd heard Adams conduct the LSO, and they responded to his direction with the slick virtuosity which is the orchestra's hallmark.

The Dharma at Big Sur is a work on an altogether larger scale. Effectively a concerto in form, it mixes eastern and western musical ideas, especially in its subversion of the classical European 12-note scale, with heavy use of slides, portamento and microtones, particularly in the solo part. Leila Josefowicz stunned the audience by playing this fiendishly difficult score entirely from memory on her 6-stringed instrument, which looked rather like a futuristic prop from Star Trek, even if the amplification and mixing of the sound stage became occasionally rather overblown and muddied.

After this high-energy first half I was unfortunately vindicated in my opinion of Transmigration. Written for the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but commissioned and composed much closer to the events that it commemorates, I still feel that Adams was a victim of his own success: there had to be a commemoration piece, and there was really only one composer in the US who could be asked to write it. Adams maintains that the piece is about love, not anger (instructing the chorus at rehearsals to downplay any darker emotions), yet for me its emotional impact seems clouded and distant, maybe because of Adams's decision to use actors and reported speech for the words of the bereaved rather than face-to-face interview material. I was left feeling perplexed about the point, despite excellent performances from the London Symphony Chorus and a small but flawlessly-dictioned group from the New London Children's Choir.

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