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In performance: NSO with John Adams

Web-only review:

Adams brings his own "Perspectives" to the NSO
by Charles T. Downey

American composer John Adams appeared on the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, continuing a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center devoted to his music that began with Jennifer Koh's recital on Sunday. Composers are possibly too close to their own work to know how to treat it objectively, as a conductor must, to obtain the best result. Yet a composer-led performance, precisely because of that subjectivity, can also tell you something unique about what the composer was thinking.

The Adams-on-Adams treatment was applied to “The Wound-Dresser,” a 1988 symphonic setting of Walt Whitman’s recollections of his service as a caregiver to wounded troops in the makeshift Civil War hospitals along Washington’s National Mall. It was not necessarily the work one most wanted to hear from Adams, not least because he also conducted it in a similar program with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The piece can be powerful on first hearing, but after repeated listening its extended elegiac tone can become static. The orchestra played the pulsing chords elegantly, with electronic synthesizer touches recalling the timbre of a glass harmonica. Eric Owens lent a smooth, intense bass-baritone to the vocal part, supported by ghostly violin solos and anguished, disembodied cries from the solo trumpet that strained painfully into the stratosphere.
(read more after the jump)

Adams cast Copland’s 1938 score for the ballet “Billy the Kid” as pure Americana, giving an easy gait to the “Open Prairie” introduction and having jaunty fun with the “Street in a Frontier Town” movement. Other high points were a rhythmically precise rat-a-tat “Gun Battle” and a grotesque parade, worthy of Shostakovich, for the celebration of Billy’s capture.

Samuel Barber likely would have hated being represented, yet again, by his “Adagio for Strings,” an orchestration of a movement from his string quartet. Positioned after “The Wound-Dresser,” the work seemed like a funeral lament, even though Barber, who came to view the piece with the same mixed feelings Ravel had for “Bolero,” disliked it being used for funerals, so much so that Gian Carlo Menotti refused to allow the work to be played at Barber’s own funeral.

The only piece on the program not composed by an American was Elgar’s “Variations on an Original Theme,” now widely known by the title “Enigma.” After a somewhat rocky start, with some rhythmic disjunction across the orchestra, the work settled into a series of charming vignettes, identified by the composer with various friends. Moods ranged from gentlemanly to flighty, raucous to noble, with a charming moment of hilarity in the eleventh variation, said to depict a friend’s bulldog crashing haplessly into a nearby river. Happily, Adams did not incorporate the boozy string portamenti that Elgar deployed in his 1920 recording of the work -- another sign that a composer may not always be the best conductor of his own music.

“John Adams: Perspectives” continues with performances and other events at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere, through May 22.

--Charles T. Downey

By Anne Midgette  |  May 14, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Sorry the review didn't make it into the Washington Post that was delivered to my front lawn. I think Mr. Downey captured my reaction to the concert precisely. I can't remember ever hearing the NSO play "Billy the Kid" but after nearly 40 years of concerts, it would be easy to forget. I liked last night's performance very much. This is one of those pieces that I like as much as a grandfather as I did as a teenager. I found it both interesting and a lot of fun. The interest was in hearing combinations of sound (sonorities?) common to much contemporary music but which did not lose touch with an emotional core.

As for the "Wound Dresser" I found from my restricted view seats in the first tier that I had trouble hearing the soloist, Eric Owens, even above the generally soft background. The performance was germane to the somber sorrow of the Whitman verses but this is not something I would go out and buy on a CD for repeated listenings at home. It therefore emphasizes the importance of live performances where we can hear works we might not otherwise do. This is not a piece of music to accompany balancing your check book. It is a piece one must pay attention to.

Interesting observations on Barber's Adagio. Still enjoyable, but as a case in point, one of my seat mates asked if that wasn't used in the movie "Platoon"

I always enjoy the Enigma variations. I agree with Mr. Downey that it got off to a somewhat rough start but settled in nicely. It was also the first opportunity we have seen for the new timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam, to show off his stuff (previous concerts were not particularly challenging) which he did with aplomb (I even noticed from our aerie a brief twirl of one of the sticks.) Nimrod came across with it strong melancholy appeal, and the bombastic variations were great.

Super evening, highly recommended.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | May 14, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Amazing that the entire coverage of Mr. Adam's (this countries most prominent living composer) residence in Washington at NSO by WaPo has consisted of ONE Web-only review.
But we get yards of s**t about what the latest starlet is wearing and/or who he/she is bedding. Not to mention advice columns ad nauseum.
It would really be great if someone could put together a serious newspaper / web effort covering DC. Something for adults, not WaPo's children's fare.

Posted by: kashe | May 16, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

kashe: For the record, there have been two reviews of the Adams residency so far, and this one actually did run in the paper on Friday (though it didn't show up on the website).

Posted by: Anne Midgette | May 16, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to disagree, but I believe all of Elgar's recordings of his own music are much more than historical interest and / or curiosity. If there is a better recording of the cello concerto than that of the composer and Beatrice Harrison, I don't know it.

It is true that not all composers are great interpreters of their own works; indeed Stravinsky and Kodaly were hardly great conductors.

And let's talk about portamento. In the era in which Elgar made his recordings, they were widely used. In his scores, Mahler marked in details exactly where he wants the slides. And we're eliminating portamentos in the name of authenticity. Unbelievable!

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 17, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Hi Anne,
You need to know that the Adams review that you believe was in Friday's paper did NOT appear in my edition (DC), and it didn't appear in the PG County edition either. I must say, Friday's article about how lots of girls are named Isabella these days wasn't nearly worth the space, and should have been trimmed to make room for a review of a concert conducted by America's most distinguished living composer! I am vaguely recalling that another NSO review got similarly shorted several months back (it was one of yours). I think you have a backstabber on the loose!

Posted by: NewLarry1 | May 17, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I normally get the early MoCo edition and did not get the NSO review. I got the Pollini review, presumably instead.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 17, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

NewLarry1: Due to a shift in deadlines, the NSO review now only makes it into the final edition of the paper, where it used to make it into the second edition. This means that a number of people who used to get the NSO review on Friday morning now do not. I'm not thrilled about this, but it appears to be unavoidable (the only alternative is to write the review in 10 minutes after the concert, which is not actually feasible on a regular basis). The review usually does make it onto the Post's website, but it didn't this week, for whatever reason.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | May 18, 2010 12:02 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, Anne, for the clarification. I had a copy of Friday's paper and did not see the review, so my copy must have been one of the earlier editions.
BTW, my criticisms regarding the low level of WaPo's cultural coverage does not include your fine contributions. I appreciate your articles and reviews that spring from an obvious strong commitment and knowledge.

Posted by: kashe | May 18, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

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