John Adams teams with Yale Philharmonia, Brentano Quartet
John Adams is in more headlines than he would like these days, yet the composer got a brief respite from the Klinghoffer imbroglio with his brief residency at the Yale School of Music last week. The events culminated in a performance with YSM’s orchestra, the Yale Philharmonia, at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday.
It wasn’t immediately clear why Adams put Stravinsky’s Orpheus on the program. The program notes asserted (and he later confirmed from the podium) that his own Absolute Jest, which was also performed on Sunday, was inspired by the same composer’s La Pulcinella. Meanwhile, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which is explicitly quoted in Adams’s extended scherzo, formed the other end of the sandwich.
But there was nothing really illustrative about the presence of Orpheus, perhaps in part because its relevance is unclear—it is not, from anything we could tell, a direct influence on Adams’s piece, though it is by the same composer as one that did. But the more important reason was that Adams’s direction of the piece seemed disinterested. There were moments of threatening power, such as the biting “Pas des furies.” But on the whole, Adams failed to grasp the mystery of this dark, pungent score, and his direction, despite tight, focused playing from the Yale students, was uncommunicative.
Beethoven’s Fourth, which closed the program, seemed worlds away from the Stravinsky—quite simply, it sounded like something that Adams wanted to conduct and that the orchestra wanted to play. This was firm, muscular Beethoven, and it was a perfect showpiece for the accomplished Yale players. The creeping, swampy introduction to the first movement felt constantly on edge, finally giving way to the forceful, bursting chords that lead into the exposition. For the rest of the movement, the orchestra demonstrated a lean, sunny, thoroughly Classical sound.
The opening of the Adagio showed the one dent in the group’s armor—the start was messy, but the tender, singing melody won out, the strings and woodwinds caressing it with plush velvet. The final two movements, both taken at healthy clips, were exceptionally playful. The scherzo was a colorful, booming gallop, and Adams dutifully ignored Beethoven’s “Allegro ma non troppo” admonition in the last movement. The result was a hell-for-leather tempo that gave the music zipping excitement, but did not stifle its majesty.
Still, the Beethoven did not exactly seem the proper way to end this concert—its positioning felt like a nod to programming convention, when the piece on the program that left the greatest impression was Adams’s own Absolute Jest.
In his introduction from the podium, Adams referred to the piece as a “twenty-three minute scherzo,” and noted wryly that he had considered titling it “Infinite Jest,” in a nod to David Foster Wallace. The program notes told us that the composer “does not, despite the title, mean for the piece to be some sort of musical joke,” an odd observation given that Adams himself describes the piece as an extended scherzo.
At any rate, intended or not, Absolute Jest should be devastatingly funny to any listener who is well versed in Beethoven’s oeuvre. In the early going, Adams constructs a cold soundscape, with chilly chords in the violins and constant percussion, mostly timpani and what sounded like cowbells. The first several minutes are dominated by a jagged rhythm strongly reminiscent of the opening bars to another famously lengthy scherzo, that from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
This figure at first suggests something dark or threatening, but as lyrical writing for woodwinds is layered over the sharp digging of the strings, we get a picture of acerbic wit. Snatches of other Beethoven scherzos, from symphonies and quartets, dart in and out—when the opening bars of the scherzo from Symphony No. 4 blundered in, there were actually a few out-loud laughs.
The late string quartets, Adams told us, were his immediate inspiration, and he has written the piece for the peculiar instrumentation of string quartet with orchestra. For significant stretches, the quartet (in this performance, the admirable Brentano String Quartet) does chart its own course, with the orchestra accompanying. Still, there isn’t quite a sense of quartet-as-soloist; this is an ensemble piece, having at times the feel of a concerto for orchestra.
Absolute Jest was preceded by one of the more effective podium introductions that Avery Fisher Hall has seen lately. In addition to Adams’s remarks, Brentano performed excerpts—not of the piece itself, but of the quartet movements that it quotes. They clearly went on a bit longer than Adams intended, as the conductor grew visibly fidgety after the first few bars of each demonstration, but no one else seemed bothered. Brentano played the relevant excerpts with such singing glow, we were sorry to hear them stop.