United Kingdom Adams, Salonen: Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Ella Wahlström (sound design); New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 2.4.2017. (CC)
John Adams – The Chairman Dances (1985); Harmonielehre (1984/5)
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Cello Concerto (European premiere)
Part of the Barbican Presents International Associate Residency programme, this was the final concert in a sequence of four by the New York Philharmonic (three full-on symphony concerts, plus one “Very Young People’s Concert” at Milton Court last Saturday).
On the basis of this concert, the New Yorkers are in fine fettle. The first surprise came before a note was sounded: the eschewing of terracing in the orchestral layout, resulting in one mass of players on stage without, for example, the brass being raised; this arrangement offered greater homogeneity of sound.
Celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday, two of his pieces enclosed the European premiere of a concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen (better known to London audiences as a conductor, of course, and now effectively a “composing conductor” rather than a “conducting composer”). It was a fascinating programme, but one with which a less high profile orchestra might have had problems filling the hall. There were no such concerns here, with a healthy returns queue prior to the start of the concert.
Adams’ “Foxtrot for orchestra”, The Chairman Dances is what the composer refers to as an “out-take” from Act III of Nixon in China. Gilbert ensured the opening’s chuggings were perfectly balanced, and that the later Romantic-style gestures were fully honoured. Slinky brass and a phenomenal percussion and piano “break” of the minimalist variety ensured tension dropped not one iota throughout. The bright sound the music requires is perfect for the NYPO, as are the catchy rhythms.
The second half was taken up by Adams’ Harmonielehre, his “tribute” to Schoenberg. Inverted commas, for sure, given that the Schoenbergian model of musical organisation is pretty much anathema to Adams. There is no intent to ridicule here, more an attempt to look at Schoenberg and his world through Adams’ minimalist glasses. Adams refers to the “shades” (in the sense of ghosts) of Mahler, Sibelius, Debussy and early Schoenberg haunting his score, and “suspects” his work has postmodern leanings. The work is cast in three movements. The first, without a title, lasts for over a quarter of an hour. A better performance than this could hardly be imagined. The opening hammered E-minor chords and the contrasting skitterings were impeccably done, the chords with razor-sharp precision. The long horn and cello melody around 6/7 minutes in, so reminiscent of Romantic film music, was unashamedly lyrical, its length bringing to mind one of Birtwistle’s endless melodies perhaps. One wondered at the unanimity of the high string lines, at the eloquence of the horn solo (Richard Deane). Adams works in gestures and images: here, he dreamt of a gigantic supertanker taking off from the surface of San Francisco Bay, and that informs the music’s trajectory. The work’s second panel is entitled “The Anfortas Wound” (spelling the name with an “n” and not an “m”), and there seems to be a reference to Parsifal at the opening. The derivation here, though, is from Jung’s discussion of Anfortas. The long trumpet solo (Christopher Martin) was brilliantly delivered. Faultless technically, it also captures the strong sense of pained yearning that lies at the heart here. The finale, “Meister Eckhardy and Quackie,” (its title a strange melding of the mystic Meister Eckhardt and a nickname for the composer’s own daughter) begins with a tissue-delicate berceuse, given with the utmost sensitivity to line and gilded texture here. Gilbert structured the movement impeccably; pacing seemed perfect throughout and special note should perhaps go to the hugely impressive brass swells.
Gilbert gave a little talk on the Salonen piece while the stage was being reset between the foxtrot and the concerto, explaining that Salonen was unable to be present on this occasion. The ink on Salonen’s score is almost still wet: completed this year, it was premiered in Chicago (the composer conducting) and found its way to New York not long thereafter with Gilbert at the helm. It is written for Yo-Yo Ma and, perhaps more specifically still, Ma’s prodigious technique, so the work has a decidedly limited playership. As an example, Salonen asks the cellist to end the concerto on a note so high that most violinists would have problems finding it safely. There is an electronic element to the second movement, where the cello’s utterance is looped so it echoes around the auditorium.
Perhaps Salonen’s own descriptions are more eloquent than Gilbert’s. The latter’s description of the work’s opening as a “primordial soup” brought to mind a plethora of contemporary pieces from the 1980s together with a slight sinking feeling. It is a gesture that has been done to death. Some material that comes from an earlier cello piece, … knock, breathe, shine …, is found in the new concerto. The first movement was in fact marked as “Chaos to line” in one of Salonen’s notebooks: “a simple thought emerging from a complex landscape … almost like consciousness developing from clouds of dust”. Already that feels better than soup. It’s a rather glistening soup, it turns out. Ma doubles the cello line at the opening while finding his own voice. He can really make a line sing, and Salonen clearly capitalises on that fact in his writing. Lines can be lush, sonorities radiant. Salonen continues the cosmological link with the description that he “imagined the solo line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines/instruments/moving objects. A bit like a comet’s tail.” The musical realisation of that is brilliantly managed; the NYPO seemed alive to every nuance of Salonen’s writing.
The second movement is simple in form, opening and closing with what Salonen refers to as “wedge-shaped clouds”. The opening is loud (huge, in fact) and thins while the final cloud is the reverse. There is something of a lullaby about the looping of Ma’s melody, of the idea of him accompanied by himself via the electronica. An active but hyper-beautiful duet between cello and alto flute is a highlight of this movement, which as a whole is characterised by a haunting other-worldliness.
The “slow, brooding” (Salonen’s words) cello solo that opens the finale, eloquent in the extreme here, seemed to underline the core qualities Ma brought to the table: supreme confidence and simply no bars to technique. A set of congos and bongos is set at the front of the orchestra for what are effectively interactions with the cello. At one point, Salonen envisages the orchestra as a “giant lung, expanding and contracting first slowly, but accelerating to a point of mild hyperventilation”. There is a magnificent imagination at work here, and Salonen the composer knows precisely how to translate that into music.
At the close of the concert, even though there was shuffling of music and I could swear I espied an extra sheet of music on the players’ music stands, no encore was forthcoming. A shame in some ways, as there was so much energy in the air after Harmonielehre, it seemed to wish to continue of its own volition. This was a great concert, a true celebration of the excellence of the New Yorkers.
Alan Gilbert, the first native New Yorker to lead the city’s orchestra, steps down this year from his post. His successor will be Jaap Van Zweden.