John Adams and Mason Bates Premieres Jostle Earlier Musical Mavericks

  United StatesUnited States Adams, Bates, Feldman, Varèse: Paul Jacobs (organ), Emmanuel Ax (piano), St. Lawrence String Quartet, San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 15.3.2012 (HS)

Composer John Adams’ music has become progressively denser and more adventurous harmonically and structurally since he first made a splash with some of the most arresting minimalist scores more than 30 years ago. Through it all, though, you could always count on an Adams score to have a coherent narrative, something the ear can follow without having the sort of back story that many contemporary works require. His music is almost always guaranteed to bring a smile, usually with an offhand musical joke or an unexpected turn of phrase.

These attributes were hard to find in his latest effort, Absolute Jest, which received its world premiere Thursday night as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks festival. Adams’ music has been a key part of the American Mavericks concerts and mini-festivals since Michael Tilson Thomas and the symphony did the first one in 2000, which introduced audiences to the work of Charles Ives, Meredith Monk, Henry Cowell, George Antheil and George Harrison – all American composers who went their own way. Absolute Jest is the latest in a series of the orchestra’s Adams commissions, dating back to Harmonium, Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and more recently My Father Knew Charles Ives, and the oratorios El Niño and The Flowering Tree.

In a video describing Absolute Jest, Adams cites two inspirations: the scherzos of Beethoven’s late works – mostly the late quartets but also the rhythmic motive from the Ninth Symphony – and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, for the way that composer put his own stamp on earlier music. At first hearing, however, that strikes a false note, and in more ways than one. He created, he says in the video, “a 25-minute scherzo, maybe the world’s longest.”

The germs of musical material indeed cite snippets of Beethoven’s tunes and rhythmic gestures, but Adams quickly layers them into a dense tangle. It is devilishly hard for the ear to find them, except for the insistent three-note dotted-eighth motif that starts in the tympani and spreads through the orchestra. Not until about the 8-minute mark does the texture open up enough for us to catch our breath, and it’s one of Adams’ lovely moments of respite, completely consonant in contrast to the raucous dissonance around it. But dissonance or consonance isn’t the issue here; it’s whether it’s possible to discern a coherent narrative. It’s also difficult to discern the contribution of the St. Lawrence Quartet. Arrayed before the orchestra, their parts were woven so tightly into the fabric of the orchestration that it was hard to pick out. That opacity also makes it difficult to hear the jokes Adams almost certainly hid in the music, except for a ham-handed steal from Mozart’s “A Musical Joke” at the very end.

These problems in balance suggest that either Adams needs to rethink the piece, or next time Tilson Thomas must tease out the important elements with further rehearsals and readings. Repeated hearings might make this all more comprehensible to the audience, too. The orchestra has programmed the piece next season with several actual Beethoven works, including the Symphony No. 4.

There were no such problems with the other world premiere, Mass Transmission by Mason Bates, which opened the program. Bates’ musical language is anything but challenging, favoring simple harmonies, straightforward musical lines and a certain theatricality. Scored for chorus, organ and electronica, the piece describes a moment in the 1920s when technology found a way to reach across the world instantaneously. Java was a Dutch colony, and parents could converse over radio with their children sent there from the homeland to be pages in the government. It was, in Bates’ view, a rudimentary sort of Skype, and to describe the wonder of it can remind us of how much of a miracle that sort of instant communication still is. Bates’ emotionally resonant music contrasts that with the banality of what actually is said in everyday communication.

At the core, Bates creates some lovely passages for the chorus in the three sections of the score. The first part, in the telegraph office in Holland, uses electronica to introduce wireless radio sounds to set the scene as the chorus sketches a description in deft harmonies. The second part includes a halting and ultimately banal conversation between mother and daughter separated by 10,000 miles, as the electronica introduces gamelan sounds. The organ underlies it all with a toccata. The final section reflects the mother’s ecstasy in making contact with her child, the organ and chorus swelling to a climax. This is appealingly descriptive music, and anyone seeking deeper meanings is looking in the wrong place.

The second half of the program could be thought of as providing thoughtful comment on the musical offerings in the first. Morton Feldman’s 1972 work Piano and Orchestra, which uses silence as much as it does the orchestra and piano, beguiles a listener with daubs of soft dissonances, occasionally coalescing into something closely resembling a musical line but mostly content to paint a picture in time. The individual chords can be complex, but the structure makes it easy to see the music.

Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, a piece the Swiss composer wrote while living in New York in the 1920s, is even noisier, more raucous and rambunctious than Absolute Jest, and it includes specific references to other composers as well. There’s Debussy, in the opening gestures of alto flute with harps and bassoon. Fairly literal liftings here and there from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring pepper the rest of the score. For all the contributions of percussion, including an oft-used siren, the magic of the piece lies in Varèse’s orchestral voicings. In the end, those sonorities and Feldman’s – superbly executed by Tilson Thomas and the orchestra – delivered the most potency.

Harvey Steiman