Under the Baton of John Adams the LSO Perform Bartók, Stravinsky, and Adams – with Mixed Results

10/12/2016

Bartók, Stravinsky, Adams: Leila Josefowitz (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / John Adams. Barbican Hall, 8.12. 2016. (CC)

Bartók – Hungarian Sketches, Sz97 (1931)

Stravinsky – Orpheus (1947)

Adams – Scheherazade.2 (2014)

Pre-concert event: LSO Platforms: Guildhall Artists

BartókContrasts (1936): Ionel Manciu (violin); Dimitris Spouras (clarinet); Inga Liukaityte (piano)

StravinskyOctet (1923): Richard Benjafield (conductor); Stephanie Tepper (flute); Sophie Creaner (clarinet); Finan Jones, Tom Moss (bassoons); Matthew Stein, Oliver Haines (trumpets); Farkhad Bulatov, Adam Crighton (trombones)

Celebrating “John Adams at 70,” this was a beautifully programmed main event. (The LSO Platform pre-concert recital is reviewed below.) It was the pull of Stravinsky’s beautiful but rarely-heard in the concert hall Orpheus that pulled this particular reviewer towards this particular event and as it turned out it was pretty much the highlight of the concert. But first, some Bartók.

The Hungarian Sketches only last around ten minutes, but this set of five dances remains a beautiful example of Bartók’s winning and highly individual way with folk music. The pieces are actually arrangements of earlier piano pieces: the first two from the Ten Easy Pieces, the “Air” from Four Dirges, “A bit tipsy” from Three Burlesques, and the very folksy “Dance of the Ürög Swineherds” from For Children. The first showed the care Adams had put into rehearsal, the perfectly calibrated string accompaniment in perfect balance to Chris Richards’ clarinet solo. The second piece, “Bear Dance,” seems to be hewn from the same cloth as The Miraculous Mandarin, urgent and pounding. The clear highlight was the beauty of the “Air” (Mélodia), with another superb clarinet solo. High contrast indeed to the cartoonish “A but tipsy,” where Adams caught the depiction of an off-balance gait perfectly. Finally, a deliciously abandoned “Dance of the Ürög Swineherds.” Adams’ clear, no-nonsense beat invited in the crispness the LSO was only too happy to deliver. If the above provides inspiration to go and listen to this piece, the Chicago/Reiner RCA performance is simply superb.

Why the beautiful, stunning score that is Stravinsky’s Orpheus is not played more is one of life’s great mysteries. The polar opposite of the outrageous energy of The Rite of Spring, Orpheus is more often internal and infinitely touching, as is the case with the very opening Lento sostenuto for hushed strings and crazily beautiful descending lines on harp. For this piece, Adams took to the microphone and gave us a little spoken introduction. He talked of Orpheus and his lyre, making a distinction between that type of “lyre” and the Donald Trump “liar” (it works better when spoken, of course). No doubting Adams’ political views on Trump then. But it would have been a hard heart indeed that did not come out in full agreement about this quality of this masterpiece. Simply brilliant woodwind and solo violin (leader Roman Simovic) in “Air de Danse” were a true delight. Simovic’s violin is, it has to be said, one of the loudest around. No problems with projection there.

Adams found dignity and grace, even in the “Danse des furies” that opens the second scene, here buzzing with energy. The brief third scene comprises just one movement, “Apotheose d’Orphée”, featuring a horn duet that perhaps here lost a little in dignity, sounding just a tad awkward. But what a wonderful piece.

Adams could perhaps have taken a few lessons in concise expression for his own Scheherazade.2 for violin and orchestra. It is a 50-minute marathon, one which dedicatee (and Adams’ muse) Leila Josefowicz takes completely and utterly in her stride. Modeled after Berlioz’s dramatic symphonies, the piece does not have a detailed programme, but each of its four movements has a suggestive title and there is a discernible journey for the soloist from the angular “Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit of the True Believers” to the final “Escape, flight, sanctuary.” An exploration of the power of the feminine, Adams’ piece was inspired by an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris that focused on the story of the Arabian Nights and, of course, of Scheherazade. So it is that Josefowicz has become Adams’ own Scheherazade, beautiful but empowered and who offers an oasis of calm as, for example, “bearded men” argue doctrine. As Adams puts it, he finds “Leila a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess.”

Well, strength + energy = stamina, and that Josefowicz clearly has in abundance. The discursive first movement has a tendency to ramble, and the harmonic vocabulary can tend towards the monochorome and even the nondescript. Josefowicz gave it her all, though. There was no sense of saving her energy for later on, and her violin sang beautifully sweetly. The second panel, “A Long Desire (Love Scene)” depicts intimacy between two lovers who, Adams suggests, may both be female. The power of the opening melts into scoring that seems to refer to, or perhaps wink at, Rimsky-Korsakov; later, there seems to be a more (Richard) Straussian bent to the writing. Certainly there is a luxury and richness to the writing now that takes the listener directly into the world of the sensuous. Josefowicz effectively worked herself up into a frenzy during the movement’s trajectory.

Adams’ piece is decidedly uneven. The third panel, “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards” is gestural in a very filmic way; the reference that came to mind was the Metropolis Symphony of Michael Daugherty. Finally, “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary” which contains the piece’s most memorable moment: a properly singing high register melody for soloist over luminous chords from the tutti. The use of a cimbalom is effective, for sure. If only the invention in this work were more even. The enthusiastic reception for Josefowicz was more than warranted; but the end result was a feeling of dissatisfaction.

The pre-concert event complemented the main course excellently. The Bartók Contrasts was heard in a terrific performance, exuding youthful energy and enthusiasm – the dialogue between Ionel Manciu’s violin and Dimitris Spouras’s clarinet a particular joy. The Stravinsky Octet is another gem that needs more airings. Under Richard Benjafield’s precise direction, the necessary tight ensemble allowed the piece to unfold with a real sense of style. The carefully shaped phrases of the first movement’s Lento spoke of careful preparation, while the ensuing Allegro moderato was simply joyous. Humour, too, played its part in the central Tema con variazioni. A wonderful warm-up event that was, in fairness, more than a warm-up event.

Colin Clarke

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