In performance: NSO with John Adams
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
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