Colorful Composers from Opposite Ends of the 20th Century

United StatesUnited States Adams, Stravinsky: Orli Shaham (piano), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Synergy Vocals, John Adams (conductor); Elvis Costello (narrator), Malcolm McDowell (The Devil), Nick Gabriel (The Soldier), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA. 16.1.2015 (HS)

Adams: Grand Pianola Music
Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat


At first glance you might not think Stravinsky’s low-budget but enduring little theatrical fling, L’Histoire du Soldat, has much in common with Grand Pianola Music, John Adams’ early attempt to stretch the bounds of minimalism. But put them together on a program, as the San Francisco Symphony did in a memorable subscription offering this weekend, and the rewards are plentiful.

Adams himself conducted his colorful 30-minute exercise for two pianos, winds, percussion and wordless vocals. After intermission a remarkably talented crew of seven soloists, plucked from among the orchestra’s principals, made Stravinsky’s tale come to life vividly. From opposite ends of the 20th century, from composers leading revolutionary changes in modern music, these two works reached out to audiences rather than pushing them away, even as they prickled the ear with moments of pungency. And oh, by the way, elements of jazz are central to both pieces.

The Adams piece, which is being recorded for future release in these performances, was written in 1982. It presages the truly groundbreaking Harmonielehre, a bigger and even more expansive work that debuted three years later, and even contains some similar musical gestures. Grand Pianola Music veers away from minimalism orthodoxy by straying into more peppery harmonies and development of musical material into full-scale climaxes.

In his program note, Adams engagingly recalls the inspiration for Grand Pianola Music came from driving on Interstate 5, the long, straight, minimally scenic highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In his rear-view mirror he saw two black limousines gaining on him, then passing, and disappearing into the distance. In his mind he saw them as extra-long grand pianos and heard them playing arpeggios in E-flat and B-flat.

In the concert hall the pianos, played with precision and flair by Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin, began immersed in the gently swaying soft harmonies. The pianos’ musical lines echo each other, displaced only by an eighth or sixteenth note, creating a shimmering texture. It’s tricky to play, but beguiling to the ear. The piano lines emerge into the light as the first part of the piece gains momentum and builds to a rich climax, then recedes into quiet section before the finale explores a Beethoven-esque obsession with tonic-dominant-tonic harmonies.

The harmony and formal structure are reminiscent of a jazz big band, reaching for climaxes with familiar-sounding crescendos that can take surprising turns. The stringless orchestra and a trio of plush-textured women’s voices (Micaela Haslam and Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, sopranos; Heather Cairncross, alto) brought a broad palette of colors and crisp rhythmic vitality. A few minor instrumental stumbles should easily be rectified in the remaining two performances for the recording.

Soldat, written in 1918, finds Stravinsky in his neoclassical mode, melding a folkloric tale by Alexander Alfanasyev with rollicking music that maximizes the sound of a seven-piece orchestra. Stravinsky wrote later that he was influenced by jazz groups’ ability to create fuller sounds, although he admitted he had never actually heard such music, only read scores. It comes off as some kind of a music-hall genre, but a troupe of worthy soloists can bring out its wit and snap.

This group, led by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as the fiddle referred to in the story, boasted especially good work by percussionist Jacob Nissly, trumpeter Mark Inouye and marvelous rhythmic propulsion by bassist Scott Pingel. The rest of the group combined for brilliant execution of the score: Carey Bell (clarinet), Stephen Paulson (bassoon) and Timothy Higgins (trombone).

The tale itself, originally translated into French but now often performed in the U.S. in idiomatic English, is told by a narrator and two actors. This uncredited translation combined good storytelling with occasionally witty gestures. There was no attempt at staging the story, just three actors in black reading the text from those reflective glass lecterns often used by orating politicians.

Nick Gabriel, a star with American Conservatory Theater, was especially winning as the soldier who trades his ratty old violin for a red book with tomorrow’s financial results. The book, of course, is a trick of the Devil. The soldier earns a fortune at the cost, of course, of his soul. As The Devil, the veteran actor Malcolm McDowell was oddly compelling and eerie, if restrained.

It must have seemed like a genius idea to cast Elvis Costello as the narrator. Costello’s musical inventiveness and comfort with disparate musical genres has been legendary, performing as he has with artists ranging from Ann-Sofie von Otter, Paul McCartney and Alain Toussant—but not as an actor. The rigorous, blocky rhythms emasculated the portion of his text set against the music, and he was often awkwardly stiff in the rest. He tended to put the brakes on the piece’s momentum and otherwise winning veracity.

That said, it’s rare to hear such clear-headed, uninhibited and vigorous execution of Stravinsky’s score.

Harvey Steiman

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