JOHN ADAMS BRINGS RHYTHMIC EXCITEMENT TO
NEW WORLD CONCERT
By Lawrence Budmen
For more than two decades composer John Adams has been at the forefront of musical creativity in America. Originally one of the pioneering minimalists (along with Phillip Glass and Steve Reich), his compositions have come to embrace a variety of musical idioms. Adams is also a first rate conductor. His formidable talents (as both creative and performing artist) were on display at the New World Symphony's "Sounds of the Times" concert on January 18, 2003 at Miami Beach's Lincoln Theater.
The "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" (1994) is one of Adams's most frequently performed works. (This performance was the score's South Florida premiere.) It is a major addition to the 20th century violin concerto literature. All the hallmarks of the composer's mature style are present - pounding rhythmic energy, soaring lyrical ariosos, and virtuoso orchestral writing that is strongly influenced by jazz and rock. The music combines Baroque simplicity and daunting technical complexity. The first movement (titled Quarter Note = 78) is an elongated rhapsody for violin and orchestra that pays tribute to Bartok and Prokofieff, yet speaks in an original, personal musical language. (There is a direct quotation from Prokofieff's second violin concerto that clearly pays homage to that Russian master.) The second movement Chaconne: "Body through which the dream flows" uses the same bass line as Johann Pachelbel's famous "Canon," over which the violin weaves a haunting, mesmerizing harmonic stream. The concluding Toccare is a virtuoso violin showpiece with strong influences from country fiddling and techno-rock, punctuated by jazz riffs on percussion.
This contemporary classic requires a violin soloist with flawless technique, virtuosity to burn, and an adventurous spirit. Leila Josefowicz met all of these requirements and then some. A former teen age violin prodigy, Ms. Josefowicz has evolved into a mature artist. Her glamorous stage presence and high energy performance were charismatic. She totally identified with the kinetic, driving rhythms of Adams's musical discourse. In the long, rhapsodic first movement she played the rapid fire double stops with absolute precision and perfect intonation. In the Chaconne her darkly burnished tone combined with Adams's imaginative scoring for woodwinds, synthesizers, and vibraphone to produce harmonies that were eerie, romantic, and truly beautiful. This central movement of the concerto became a memorable combination of the composer's visionary rethinking of Baroque modes and the performer's heartfelt commitment to the music. In the concluding Toccata Ms. Josefowicz tossed off Adams's techno dances with dazzling ease and flair. She also listened carefully to every note and coloration of the orchestral line (as if she were playing large scale chamber music). Like Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, Ms. Josefowicz has taken virtuoso violin playing to an entirely new level.
The New World Symphony played the demanding orchestral score with brilliance and tonal richness. Adams conducted with energy, authority, and a clearly delineated baton technique. There was real chemistry between him and the gifted young musicians. The orchestra shone splendidly in Esa-Pekka Salonen's "LA Variations" (1997). Salonen is one of today's podium stars. He is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic - the orchestra for which this score was written. As a composer, he has a sophisticated sense of instrument timbres and tonal hues. Orchestral color abounds in this lavish essay for large ensemble. Besides synthesizers and exotic percussion, the score features a unique woodwind instrument - a contrabass clarinet with low notes equal to those of the string double bass. The music is like the impressionism of Debussy magnified in sound one hundred times over. Some of the birds like sounds of the wind writing recall Messiaen. The percussion scoring has a wild, neo-Stravinsky ("Rite of Spring") quality. Salonen has written variations on chords rather than a theme - a complete reinvention of a classical form. This throbbing music is a vibrant, exciting addition to the orchestral repertoire. Adams conducted it with enthusiasm and total control over the large instrumental ensemble.
He opened the program with Igor Stravinsky's "Concerto in D for String Orchestra" - "Basel Concerto" (1947). This work is in the same neo-classical idiom as the composer's violin concerto and ballet scores "Apollo" and "Pulcinella." In 1951 the choreographer Jerome Robbins adapted the string work into a ballet "The Cage." The music is filled with strong dance rhythms. The beautiful second movement is an ideal romantic pas de deux. The string playing was superb with beautiful solo work by the first chair violin, viola, and cello players. Adams led a sparkling performance of this charming Stravinsky vignette.
The near capacity audience for this challenging program rewarded the artists with repeated standing ovations. For sheer rhythmic excitement, few performances can rival the musical energy John Adams drew from the New World players. The great violin artistry of Leila Josefowicz made this concert a truly memorable occasion.