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CD Review

John Adams

Road Movies

  • Road Movies (1995) **
  • Hallelujah Junction (1996) *^
  • China Gates (1977) *
  • American Berserk (2001) *
  • Phrygian Gates (1977) ^
** Leila Josefowicz, violin
** John Novacek, piano
* Nicolas Hodges, piano
^ Rolf Hind, piano
Nonesuch 79699-2 67:26
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Movies in black and white.

The scintillating surface of most minimalism depends greatly on the composer's ability to orchestrate. The surface twinkles because the orchestra does. Adams has affinities with minimalism yet doesn't seem of it. If he were, he'd be one of the most maximal minimal composers around. Then again, Adams moved off of pure minimalism very early, although some of the techniques occasionally reappear in works not particularly minimalist. Adams's surfaces these days arise from complex counterpoint of complex material. The separate planes of melodic activity, rather than the colors, sparkle. All the more important, then, to provide a varied, clear instrumentation that allows you to distinguish the individual strands. In a composer like Glass, color provides much of the interest. In Adams, color illuminates structure.

Thus, Adams's chamber music, with a color palette stripped down to that available to one or two performers, raises a point that goes to the heart of its character. Does the music hold its interest when it eschews an orchestral or quasi-orchestral range of timbre? As far as the program on this CD goes, the verdict is mixed, but the absence of orchestral Technicolor does uncover some interesting points about Adams's music.

The question is answered in a resounding affirmative with the very first piece, Road Movies. Of course, Leila Josefowicz on the violin and her accompanist, John Novacek, certainly help. The first movement is largely ostinato, and both players get an extraordinary amount of phrase variation out of those passages, largely through a mastery of dynamics and articulation.

Josefowicz has long seemed to me the Real Deal among the violin prodigies. She's already a better musician than Midori, and a finer technician than Chang. She also shows a greater range than Hahn. Hahn, within a certain emotional groove, sings brilliantly, but it so far has proved a narrow groove, mainly lyrical. I'm not so sure I'd want to hear Hahn in a truly bravura work. I don't know what she'd make of Road Movies, for example, particularly the last movement.

Adams's second movement, slow and contemplative, has a bit of a blues feel to it. The first movement seems to me a descendent of Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto and Reich's Music for 18 Musicians; the second, a combination of Gershwin and Copland (and if Copland were alive to read this, he'd probably be annoyed by the comparison). The movement combines Gershwin's big-city melancholy (see the second movement of the Concerto in F) with Copland's big-sky loneliness and spareness. The finale is all jumps and jitters, with bits of fiddle music abstracted and occasionally swung like a samba. It brings to mind Villa-Lôbos's "Little Train of the Caipira" on amphetamines.

In Hallelujah Junction, the Stravinskian element comes more to the front. Long stretches of the Adams remind me of the Russian's Concerto for 2 Pianos Soli. It's the bright Stravinskian bell-like sonorities that first capture the ear. Again, one encounters the composer's fascination with ostinato and perpetuum mobile, probably part of the attraction to minimalism in the first place. But this isn't merely that, since the "ostinato" comes out of brilliant, quick counterpoint. The piece serves to display Adams's virtuoso counterpoint, and Hodges and Hind just play the bejabbers out of it. A terrific piece, it leaves you breathless.

I'm less enamored of the earlier pieces, China Gates and Phrygian Gates. I prefer China Gates, which evokes for me Indonesian gamelan, in no small measure because it doesn't last as long. However, Hodges picks out little melodies from the burbling textures and gives me other reasons to like it. I've never cared for Phrygian Gates, in any of its incarnations. It alternates between Phrygian (E to E' on the white keys of the piano) and Lydian (F to F' on the white keys) modes. Maybe my dissatisfaction comes down to those two modes, both of which over the long haul become to me increasingly flaccid, but mostly the work puts me to sleep. And it goes on two minutes short of forever. Hind doesn't change my mind, but he plays it as well as or even better than I've heard it.

American Berserk (the fantastic title comes from Philip Roth) strikes me as an update of Ives' "Hawthorne" movement from the "Concord" Sonata. Adams's textures are cleaner, but the strong underlay of ragtime and the bustle and shove of the piece evoke the busy-ness of American life, just as Ives did.

Despite my dislike of Phrygian Gates, this is one terrific disc. The performers play with all brain cells firing. Even more, the engineering stands out, with terrific clarity and separation that allows you to distinguish the various layers that contribute to Adams's textures. Moreover, the engineer tricks you into believing this is "natural."

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz