Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams and Beethoven begin the festivities

The first night of the BBC Proms is a watershed moment in the summer of a classical music lover. Yet increasingly the festival is working on being more inclusive, and some of this year’s BBC Proms Youth Choir (seen above the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner) had not even sung in public before, let alone attended the festival.

Such is the uniting power of one of Britain’s favourite summer institutions, and once again it was off to a flyer with the customary big choral work (John AdamsHarmonium) a world premiere (Tom Coult‘s St John’s Dance) and a high profile solo contribution from Igor Levit, whose account of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 met and surpassed its heady expectations.

Both Levit and Coult had political undertones to their work. Coult’s new composition depicted the madness of the Middle Ages, people possessed by an all-encompassing dance of death that drove them into dangerous physical and mental situations. A parallel, you might think, for today’s superpowers and the shocking news they bring on a daily basis. Whether these references were intentional or not, it was good to have a new piece that started quietly, with a deliberately fragile violin solo, and built to its bigger moments.

Levit (above, at the piano) also had quiet asides, but his were absolutely spellbinding – the first movement cadenza and slow movement introduction in Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 both cases in point. Here we could easily have been back at the Wigmore Hall, witnessing a solo sonata performed to a select few, such was the intensity of his communication at a quiet dynamic. When he was with the orchestra the intensity subsided a little, not least because the balance favoured a coarse timpani sound. That said, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra woodwind was particularly beautiful under Edward Gardner’s watchful eye.

Levit had great things to say, his mind clearly at one with Beethoven’s moods and melodic invention. His use of silence was keenly sensitive, the tension evident in a brooding opening movement and deeply thoughtful Largo. The Rondo finale freed itself from the confines, skipping to a more obvious beat – but then Levit delivered a deeply felt encore, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (from the Choral Symphony finale) reduced to first principles and played to emphasise its role as an anthem of European unity. It was a provocative statement of which Leonard Bernstein – who conducted the Choral symphony in the unification concert when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 – would have been proud.

Finally we went for broke, with the 400-strong throng of the BBC Proms Youth Choir, brilliantly drilled and tirelessly rehearsed to deliver a moving and colourful performance of John AdamsHarmonium. Here too there were powerful statements in settings of the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Edward Gardner ensured they were delivered with great clarity and breadth. The thrill of Adams’ colourful music as it generated momentum was as strong as ever, and the percussionists of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in particular deserve great credit for their dexterity, rhythmic power and definition.

As a side note, what a shame to lose the ‘Further Listening and Reading’ section from the Proms programme this time around. It has been my ‘go to’ page ever since I started going to the Proms, and to not have it there feels like an unnecessary omission, even with the introduction of a new Listening Service – Tom, that is. Books are important in classical music, and so are recorded statements. To lose them from the programme is disappointing.

That said – how great  it is to have the festival back, confirming the ascent of summer in thrilling style. Eight weeks of great music lie ahead!

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou)

This year Arcana will once again have two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before.

To that end our reviews will come from first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts – many of whom will see things that us regulars do not! Most reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best part of the Royal Albert Hall for sound quality and atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. We will look to bring classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!

John Adams Earbox – A 70th Birthday Tribute

john-adams

John Adams (photo (c) Margaretta Mitchell)

by Ben Hogwood

Those minimalists – they certainly have some staying power! The holy trinity of this much-loved form of music – Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams – have notched up 230 years on the planet between them. Reich and Glass, both 80, have had their moment in the spotlight, so it’s now the turn of youngster Adams – a mere 70 years old today – to shine.

Like Steve Reich, he works in a style where the musical ideas get progressively developed, whereas Glass – in his later years at least – is much more repetitive. Like Glass, however, Adams has written more for the stage, completing several large-scale operas. He is also capable of scaling down, with string quartets and piano pieces also part of his output.

Here, then, are ten pieces of Adams, selected from personal experience in order of discovery, with the aim of getting the feet tapping and the mind racing!

Short Ride In A Fast Machine (1986)

Probably the best known of Adams’ pieces, this is a tour de force for orchestra – and apparently a nightmare to conduct in terms of getting the rhythms clear! Thrills and spills await…

El Dorado (1991)

This is the piece where the influence of Sibelius in John Adams’ music really shines through. El Dorado is one of his very best ‘through composed’ pieces – that is it relies much more on development than repetition. Both movements start mysteriously, with murmurings throughout the orchestra, but gradually generate an impressive power when moving towards their closing section, especially in the case of the second, Soledades.

To appreciate the full impact you definitely need to hear the whole piece.

Shaker Loops (1978)

Shaker Loops appeared in a definitive Philips recording from the San Francisco Symphony and Edo de Waart in 1986. It works equally well in its original scoring for seven string players, one per part. Once the shimmers – aka ‘Shakers’, start the mind is instantly transported.

John’s Book Of Alleged Dances (1994)

An attractive, slightly bluesy set of dances where it feels like Adams is having fun, together with the Kronos Quartet, who commissioned it.

Harmonium (1980)

Make sure the room is quiet and the neighbours have gone out. Turn the stereo right up, and lose yourself to the opening moments of Harmonium, where voices and instruments blend in to one.

This is a truly magical piece that demonstrates Adams’ ability to write for large vocal and orchestral forces:

Slonimsky’s Earbox (1996)

A terrific concert opener this, punchy and upbeat from the off – with plenty of percussive intent, not to mention the swirling harps and busy woodwind and string lines. One of Adam’s most energetic works, it is written in tribute to Nicolas Slonimsky, a composer and critic who had ‘wit and hyper-energetic activity’ – hence the mood of the piece!

Lollapalooza (1995)

Jazz plays an intriguing if sometimes understated part in Adams’ music, but in Lollapalooza braying brass and woodwind instruments and syncopations are much in evidence. The piece is actually based on the rhythm made by the word, ‘loll-a-pal-ooz-a’, and develops with rolling timpani:

Doctor Atomic (2005)

Never one to shy away from controversial topics, Adams wrote an opera based on the creation of the atomic bomb, and more specifically on its creator, J.Robert Oppenheimer. He also documented the effect on the workers and the region where the bomb was tested, Los Alamos.

The end of the first act includes an aria, Batter my heart, sung by Oppenheimer and setting the words of John Donne. It arrives on the eve of the text explosion. Adams said to New Yorker critic Alex Ross, “That music just sort of fluttered down and landed on my desk one day. Part of me said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and the other half said, ‘That’s it, go ahead and do it.’ Afterward, I realized the reason it was right. Naming the site after a John Donne sonnet was itself an archaic gesture. Oppenheimer was always referring back to ancient things, summing up his state through very dignified forms.”

It is worth reading this when you listen to the powerful music! Adams made a Symphony of the opera, attached to the Spotify playlist.

City Noir (2009)

City Noir is a symphony inspired by the peculiar ambience and mood of Los Angeles ‘noir’ films, especially those produced in the late forties and early fifties”, writes Adams. “My music is an homage not necessarily to the film music of that period but rather to the overall aesthetic of the era. This symphony becomes the third in a triptych of orchestral works that have as their theme the California experience, its landscape and its culture.

The two previous are The Dharma at Big Sur (also commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and El Dorado (commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony).”

Below is the third of its three movements, Boulevard Night powerful and surging:

El Nino (2001)

One of Adams’ most successful stage productions, El Nino is classed as an ‘opera-oratorio’ that tells the Christmas story. Once again Peter Sellers was the stage collaborator, including film and dance in the production. Here is an excerpt with the stellar cast, including Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White:

Road Trip

Featured recording: Aurora Orchestra – Road Trip (Warner Classics)
road-trip

In which London’s Aurora Orchestra head for the open prairies of America, sampling folk and pop song in between modern classical music from John Adams, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The folk and pop arrangements are done by Nico Muhly.

What’s the music like?

Very accessible. There are folk tunes arranged by Nico Muhly, who has worked with US bands like Grizzly Bear in the past, as well as establishing himself as a talented composer blending a love of old church music with a tuneful modern style, and the orchestra’s viola player Max Baillie,

The classical pieces are nicely contrasted – from the hectic Chamber Symphony by Adams to the luminous Appalachian Spring, Copland’s ballet. This features American folk tunes in fresh, open-air orchestral scoring, peaking with an arrangement of the song Simple Gifts.

Added to these we have a piece by Ives, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, taken from his Three Places In New England. Ives is incredibly difficult to describe, as he operates with so many different orchestral styles, but there are always tunes – and the slow beginning to this piece brings a tear to the eye.

Does it all work?

By and large, yes. The performances are excellent, expertly marshalled by Nicholas Collon, and are closely recorded to get the intimacy of the Copland in particular. The Adams is brisk and punchy – a good listen while running, no doubt! – and has bags of rhythmic interest. The Ives is unlike anything else, though, packing into its short duration a lifetime’s worth of feeling.

Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes sings the folksongs well but I found Nico Muhly’s orchestrations had too much going on – in part a deliberate tactic from the composer – but the ear was often distracted from the tunes themselves. The subjects are a bit macabre, too – especially The Brown Girl, with its dark tales of death and divorce.

Is it recommended?

Yes, overall. The Aurora Orchestra do these sort of themed presentations very well, and as a starting point for modern American music this can be either self-contained or open out into further exploration of the composers on the disc.

Listen on Spotify