ICE playing precise but cold with John Luther Adams
It’s the proverbial New York City success story. Five years ago it was all but impossible to find a performance of John Luther Adams’ music in New York City. Now, Adams is the most publicly celebrated composer in New York, the New York Times even followed him to a Mets game. (Yes, composers can be baseball fans, and some of them even played the game.)
The switch flipped on the first day of summer, 2011, when Miller Theatre produced a performance of Adams’ Inuksuit in Morningside Park, as part of Make Music New York. Ninety-nine percussionists, scattered throughout the park, made unforgettable music, and cemented the piece, and Adams himself, in New York.
And now Miller is presenting a series of three concerts of Adams’ work, in celebration of his receipt of Columbia University’s William Schuman award. These concerts are an exciting way to hear what makes Adams notable—outdoor pieces like Inuksuit and last summer’s Sila: The Breath of the World have left the impression that he engineers spectacles. Become Ocean, his composition that received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, as fine as it is, is an atypically mainstream work.
Thursday night, in the series opener, Steven Schick led the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, a substantial piece that is representative of Adams’ aesthetic and philosophical values. At his core, he is an avant-garde composer, restricting himself to the most focused, limited material, and exploring where that might take him.
That is the abstract, intellectual side of his composing. Adams, like important predecessors such as Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, and Messiaen, also expresses a sense of beauty. The sound of his music captures his experience of geography and landscape, especially that of Alaska, which was his home for decades. He’s not Respighi; Adams uses a sense of timelessness—something like one feels standing in the middle of a big, quiet meadow—to evoke three-dimensional space.
He also works with tonality, which gives him the tools of consonance, dissonance, and the overtone series. Clouds is formed around intervals, structured in nineteen distinct sections that has the chamber orchestra playing what the titles described: “Major Seconds, Rising,” “Clouds of Perfect Fourths,” “Triads, Remembered.”
The compositional and intellectual rigor of the piece produces music that is atmospheric, full of drones, trills and arpeggios. Though not bound by the classical idea of form as a way to journey through time and experience, from one point to another, the piece is a literal progression through intervals that creates an abstract feeling of finality. The final “Major Sevenths, Rising,” coming at the end of a bit over an hour of continual music, manages to use an unstable interval for a feeling of resolution.
Clouds is powerfully sensuous and uncanny, and it’s no criticism of the piece or the composer that the performance was frustrating and disappointing. Schick and ICE were technically unimpeachable, every note, rhythm, dynamic and cue presented with confident exactitude—although there were times when quieter playing would have had more effect. One could hear everything, even at the music’s densest moments.
But they also played the music like it was Stravinsky, a set of objective arguments. There was no sense of any appreciation for the sheer beauty of the sound, no interest in the difference tones and sonic beating the intervals might create. The musicians were thinking about the piece, but weren’t showing any pleasure in it, their minds working but their senses turned off. Promising bursts like Jacob Greenberg’s playing of the piano solo in “Clouds of Mixed Sixths” were not matched by any corresponding color.
Playing Clouds like it was romantic music would be wrong, but that still leaves an enormous amount of space for mining the score for moments that the musicians, and the audience, want to feel are resonating. Schick had every detail mastered and no direction, losing the wilderness in the evergreens.
Miller’s dry acoustic didn’t flatter the piece. Bright, high chords produced a short, slight reverberation, but ideally the music should produce a steady, background resonance, the wind that push and shapes the clouds in the sky, one that has a strong contrast with stretches of silence. The performance was lightly staged, with changes in lighting, the projection of a slowly turning cloud at the back of the stage, and a gauzy dusting of smoke. Those elements couldn’t fill in for what the playing lacked.
The concerts honoring John Luther Adams continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at Miller Theatre, with performances of For Lou Harrison and In the White Silence. millertheatre.com