United States John Adams: New York Philharmonic String Quartet: Frank Huang and Sheryl Staples (violins), Cynthia Phelps (viola), Carter Brey (cello); New York Philharmonic / Alan Gilbert (Conductor), David Geffen Hall, New York City. 9.3.2017 (DS)
John Adams – Absolute Jest (2012) for string quartet and orchestra; Harmonielehre (1985)
To New Yorkers, he is as iconic and illuminatingly present as the Empire State Building. John Adams, in his signature khakis, sport coat, and solid-color tie, came out onstage at David Geffen Hall to cheers from a New York Philharmonic audience that represented the several generations of fans who have come to love him. To a newcomer, it might have sounded as if the concert were over, but for Adams, the applause is always a welcome, a thank-you from New Yorkers for what has been heard before and anticipating what is to come. Once the audience noise quieted down, conductor Alan Gilbert deployed his jovial, familiar manner, “We have the dean of American composers here.” This only roused more excited applause.
On the occasion of Adams’ 70th birthday, he noted that Gilbert once conducted the same orchestra for another septuagenarian celebration – Aaron Copland. Thus unfolds the ongoing composer genealogy, passing one tradition to the next with the opportunity to recreate or refashion music into something new. This idea was embedded in the two works, Absolute Jest (2012) and Harmonielehre (1985). When he addressed the audience, Adams noted that composers are “obsessed with our forebearers.”
Throughout Absolute Jest, snippets of Beethoven jump out like flashing light beams. Adams places a string quartet as a group soloist, in an ambitious nod to Beethoven’s late quartets. And while Harmonielehre is a breakthrough, embodying perfection as a minimalist symphony, Adams also borrowed some of the gestural language of Romanticism and the resonant voice of Stravinsky.
Adams mentioned that he was educated through the New York Philharmonic, but the orchestra may have been educated by him, too. They performed both works with the confidence and passion that only exist between long-time friends. Absolute Jest, in its first New York performance, came across rather like a classic. Even the questionable effects of the hall’s acoustics did not interfere with the balance needed to feature a string quartet in front of a full orchestra. Most of the credit toward accomplishing that feat, however, must go to Adams’ orchestration.
Harmonielehre drew the players at their best under Gilbert’s knowledgeable (and soon to be missed) baton. Some works are deeply worth hearing live, and this is one of those. Much like an Instagram photo, which can’t replace actually standing over the Grand Canyon, neither can iTunes replicate the full monumental strength and excitement of Harmonielehre. And in the future of composer genealogy, no one will be able to replace John Adams.