Classical Music Review: New Releases

The A Team -  Works by Thomas Ades and John Adams. Marin Alsop, conducing the orchestra of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Santa Cruz, CA. Aug. 9, 2003.

Music festivals are expensive, and keeping them going over a long period of time takes lots of effort. The Cabrillo Festival, which turned 41 this year, doesn't seem to have succumbed to the lassitude of middle age, when one tends to expect less, and often gets just that. And though our schedule permitted our attendance at only one concert of seven on the festival's two August weekends, the one we caught was often refreshing, and provocative too. Cabrillo's organizers had the clever idea of calling it the "A" Team concert -- a nod to the fact that both composers -- Brit Thomas Ades and American John Adams' last names begin with "A" -- and it conjoined and contrasted the widely dissimilar compositional styles of these two Grawemeyer Award-winning musicians.

Ades, who was born in London in 1971, is one of the most talked about composers on the international new music scene, and his 1995 opera Powder Her Face -- the libretto is by novelist Philip Hensher -- helped put him squarely on that map. And though the three pieces presented here weren't theatrical, they did show an instinctive grasp of timing. The first, "... but all shall be well" (1993), draws its inspiration from the last of Eliot's Four Quartets. It's a slow, somber ten-minute meditation on sin, death, and eternity, and an exploration of the power of perfect fifths. Music director Marin Alsop, who's headed the fest since 1991, is obviously a believer in Ades' merits. But opening with a piece this serious was like being confronted with a heavy main course, when a tantalizing appetizer would do. Its start and stop melodies, and its shifting straying line would challenge any conductor, and certainly seemed to challenge Alsop here. And though the sudden tuttis provided strong cadences, the piece as a whole sounded tentative -- and a bit underehearsed -- as if God couldn't make up his mind at the pearly gates. Things improved with yet another dour yet virtuosic seven-minute meditation for solo piano, Darknesse Visible (1992). Christopher O'Riley prefaced his performance with an intro so enthusiastic that we expected the piece to be an anticlimactic dud. Well, it wasn't, and Ades' writing for piano was both idiomatic -- he's a fine pianist -- and full of carefully weighted sonorities which comment on John Dowland's lute song " In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell" (1610), and the piece never outstays its welcome. The same could be said of the ten-minute Concerto Conciso (1997), for piano and ten-member ensemble, which thank God, wasn't sombre at all, but full of wit and high color. The collision between different kinds of classical and vernacular musics was vigorous -- especially the New Orleans jazz bits -- and imaginative. The piano, though obviously a starring player, was also a supporting one too, as it is in Ravel's two concertos, and Alex North's single essay in this form. Riley was again the redoubtable soloist, and Alsop and her concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams untangled its rhythmic difficulties. Still, we had the nagging suspicion that Ades, like many other British composers, makes something of a fetish of the past. Or, as Gertrude Stein remarks in her lecture, What is English Literature (1935) -- "They ( the British ) thought about what they were thinking and if you think about what you are thinking you are bound to think about it in phrases, because if you think about what you are thinking you are not thinking about a whole thing. " You're explaining, and in a slightly academic way you're promoting what you know, instead of moving into what you don't.

Adams, who's as erudite as Ades, has a penchant for using 19th century forms, and tweaking them to 20th, and now 21st, century ends. His weaker pieces, like the hugely inexpressive and deeply self-conscious Violin Concerto (1993), fail to put any new, much less personal, wine into the old bottles, while the stronger ones, like his piano concerto, Century Rolls (1996), are highly effective and entertaining too. Though that one is almost pastiche, Adams is clever enough to make it work on his own terms. Though his two pieces here seem like concertos, they're really free fantasies by a post-modern Romantic. The 15 fifteen-minute Eros Piano (1989) is the composer's response to Takemtisu's Joyce inspired Riverrun (1989), and Adams says it begins "exactly where (it) ends, with the falling motive of perfect fifths." The resultant work is full of lush pedal points, and textures both sonorous and evocative. It was like being trapped in a really beautiful dream, full of circular and never fully resolved harmonic gestures. O'Riley and the festival orchestra made these feel almost miraculously tactile.

The 24-minute A Guide to Strange Places (2001), which got its West Coast premiere here, felt just as unconscious. And its developmental plan seemed, paradoxically enough, both non-rational and completely thought out. Adams has honed his orchestrational skills over the years so that his instrumental mixtures give real pleasure. His writing for each choir here was both distinctive and expressive, with especially striking passages for mixed winds and brass. And though Adams' Guide has references and steals galore -- we think we heard the Petrouchka chord and some stamping ones from Sacre -- these are knit into whole cloth. Adams sometimes approaches the orchestra as a big band. There was some of that kind of writing here, and this abutted and happily co-existed with more conventional writing, just as these two kinds of musics are on speaking terms in Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Marin's orchestra gave it their all and the audience went wild. Although the all-purpose Civic is basically unfriendly to music, most of the sounds were hearable -- we sat in two different parts of the hall -- and had punch. New Yorker Tom Ontiveros' lighting design, ala that used for Kronos by their designer, gave visual distinction to the proceedings, though it didn't have the added pleasure of the nearly nude dancers in Cabrillo's highly theatrical 2001 production of Glass's The Photographer to work with.

Michael McDonagh
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