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Music review: John Adams' 'Absolute Jest' in San Francisco

March 16, 2012 |  1:54 pm

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet in the premiere of John Adams' "Absolute Jest."
When John Adams was a young composer and conductor in San Francisco in the early ’70s, he would often perform the experimental music of John Cage and other radicals, which was the hip thing to do at the time. But he has said that all that avant-garde business could leave him musically dissatisfied, and he’d go home and put on recordings of late Beethoven string quartets.

That is essentially what he does in a provocative new orchestral piece -- an Adams-ized mélange of late Beethoven -- commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony as part of music director Michael Tilson Thomas’ American Mavericks festival here.

The premiere at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night was sandwiched between just such radical ’70s pieces as Cage’s anarchic “Song Books” Wednesday and Feldman’s opaque Piano and Orchestra, which followed Adams on Thursday’s program.

So is Adams merely reliving his youth, or is he perhaps a maverick’s maverick, rebelling against the festival’s prevalent progressive spirit? The wise-guy title of the new piece is “Absolute Jest.” And it’s a great entertainment, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. 

The score is Adams' first major orchestral work since his ambitious “City Noir,” which Gustavo Dudamel premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. Written for the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the San Francisco orchestra, “Absolute Jest” is based on fragments from the scherzos of two Beethoven quartets, Opp. 131 and 135, and the Ninth Symphony.

With Beethoven bits bouncing off the walls, “Absolute Jest” has all the chugging rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity expected of Adams. Beethoven’s mind-boggling “Grosse Fuge” was another reference point and seemed to be Adams' real jumping-off point. His use of the orchestra was ever imaginative and surprising. Piano, harp and cowbells were tuned in pure, or just, intonation, which helped connect Beethoven to the maverick sound of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley.

Adams has been down these roads before. Throughout his career, he has attempted in his own music to come to terms with composers in history. The most original and meaningful examples are the operas “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “El Niño” and “Flowering Tree,” which are, respectively, modeled after (but do not quote) Bach’s passions, Handel’s “Messiah” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”

There is also a trickster side to Adams, although it has been suppressed of late as he has ascended through the ranks of living American classical composers to reach, at the age of 65, the top spot. “Absolute Jest” seems, however, as much a trickster piece as “Grand Pianola Music” was in the ’80s when it thumbed and thumped its nose at Modernism in the ’80s.

But if “Absolute Jest” treads, in the context of the Mavericks concerts, old ground (Lukas Foss’ 1967 Bach-based “Phorion” was given the night before), it got a hot performance under Tilson Thomas. Subtle amplification is part of the postmodern package and the jumpy St. Lawrence was so energized that you might have thought sound designer Mark Grey had wired the quartet’s seats.

The three other works Thursday were noteworthy as well. The program began with a premiere by another composer who, like Adams, lives in the East Bay. Mason Bates’ “Mass Transmission,” for chorus, organ and electronica, looks at how the telephone and early radio connected people across the planet but created a new kind of global loneliness in the process.

In terrific texts, taken from the Dutch Telegraph Office and from the Dutch East-Indies, a mother in Holland and her child in Java anxiously communicate through early technology, the distance miraculously bridged but also exaggerated in the process. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus lovingly intoned these texts, which organist Paul Jacobs underscored with drones. More interesting, though, were Bates’ beats, which he applied to his sampling of wheezy old radios and Javanese gamelan. Donato Cabrera was the conductor.

After intermission, Tilson Thomas led an ethereally quiet and too-beautiful-for-words account of Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and then he raised a ruckus with Varèse’s “Amériques.”

Emanuel Ax was the inspired soloist for Feldman's meditative study of disjointed chords and single instrumental tones in unpredictable painterly patterns. Ax’s plush tone and intense focus created the sensation of floating in air and yet being somehow rooted to the earth. Time felt as though it stood still and yet the piece seemed to be over in an instant. I can explain none of this. The experience was exceptional.

Enough quiet. Varèse was said to have found Feldman precious. In “Amériques,” he utilized a huge orchestra with a very noticeable percussion section. Stravinsky and Debussy were major influences on his 1927 score, while the percussion was something wild and original. Many players wore white earplugs to protect themselves from machine-age noisiness. But their playing was, as it was all evening, arresting.

RELATED:

Music review: Saluting our magnificent Mavericks

Music review: San Francisco Symphony's John Cage 'Song Books'

Music review: L.A. Phil embraces a new generation with Dudamel

-- Mark Swed, from San Francisco

Photo: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet in the premiere of John Adams' "Absolute Jest." Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Symphony.


 
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