In concert – Oliver Janes, CBSO / Ryan Bancroft: Adams, Mozart & Rachmaninoff

Adams The Chairman Dances (1985)
Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622 (1791)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 November 2022 [2.15pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Back from its successful US tour (the first such in almost a quarter of a century), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra this afternoon returned to Symphony Hall for what was a programme of contrasts in which an element of dance seldom lurked far beneath the surface.

Although it is often considered emblematic of his opera Nixon in China, John Adams wrote The Chairman Dances well before completing the larger work – this ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ encapsulating much of its atmosphere without being intrinsic to its content. Capricious while shot through with a tellingly distanced nostalgia, this remains among Adams’s most effective concert pieces and Ryan Bancroft secured a fine account whose meticulous attention to detail was not without corresponding panache – down to its percussive ‘winding down’ at the close.

It is (nearly) always welcome when an orchestra’s section leader takes the platform as soloist, as was proven with Oliver Janes in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – easily the most popular such piece in its repertoire yet one that can easily seem bland or even characterless in performance. There was little chance of that here – not least with a swift and purposeful take on the opening Allegro that left relatively little room for lingering over incidental detail, even if something of its underlying elegance was sacrificed with Janes’s powers of articulation pressed to the limit.

This approach paid dividends in the remaining movements, not least an Adagio whose limpid eloquence was conveyed without trace of indulgence or wanton sentiment. The final Allegro, too, had a winning buoyancy – Janes evincing a deftness and spontaneity to which the CBSO responded in kind, and with a surge of energy towards the closing chords. It set the seal on an appealing rendition which, perhaps surprisingly, Janes will not repeat at tomorrow evening’s concert from Warwick Arts Centre – when that by Gerald Finzi will be the concerto on offer.

Soon to take the reins at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Bancroft is evidently a conductor on a roll as was confirmed by his take on Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. A triptych that abounds in felicitous detail (as is often belied, if not actually concealed, by the score’s lack of expression markings), it needs flexible direction for each movement to cohere, and Bancroft had their measure. The first exuded a suspenseful energy that, in its central section, took on a winsome pathos embodied by its alto saxophone melody (affectingly played by Kyle Horch).

Even more persuasive was the sardonic central dance, its waltz motion underpinning some of the composer’s most astringent harmonies as were pointedly emphasized here. If the charged outer sections of the final dance lacked the ultimate in exhilaration, the quality of the CBSO’s response was never in doubt. In the slower middle episode, moreover, Bancroft’s deliberation ideally clarified those frequently dense textures whose expressive poise is achieved, uniquely for Rachmaninoff, without recourse to an actual melody. A sign of things to come, perhaps?

Bancroft will hopefully be returning next season, but the present one continues with events to mark the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth – including two of his symphonies and the film Scott of the Antarctic, for which the CBSO is contributing live accompaniment.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Ryan Bancroft and Oliver Janes

In concert – NEXT and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Past the Stars

bcmg-past-the-stars

NEXT [Joe Howson & Mikaela Livadiotis (pianos), Gavin Stewart (bass flute), Olivia Jago (violin)

Adams Hallelujah Junction (1996)
Saunders Bite (2016)
Mason When Joy Became Mixed with Grief (2007)

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Geoffrey Paterson

Birtwistle Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Vir Wheeling Past the Stars (2007) – Songs 3 and 4; Hayagriva (2005) [UK premiere]

Town Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 20 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have taken 15 months plus a couple of false alarms, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (above) finally resumed live performances en masse this afternoon and with this wide-raging concert typical of its programming across more than three decades of music-making.

Not least with its throwing the spotlight onto players of the next generation, the opening half featuring NEXT musicians as mentored by their senior colleagues. Things got underway with Hallelujah Junction, John Adams’ alternately incisive and soulful evoking of a truck-stop on the California-Nevada border; along with a tribute to orchestra manager Ernest Fleischmann, which doubtless explains its heightened peroration. Nor, despite some occasional vagaries of coordination, was there any doubting the conviction of Joe Howson and Mikaela Livadiotis.

From two pianists situated amid tables in the stalls to a bass flautist just in front of the organ console: Gavin Stewart made the most of this unlikely context with a committed reading of Rebecca SaundersBite, less a setting than paraphrase of the thirteenth from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in which words or syllables are variously sounded in anticipation, or as consequence of the flute’s contribution. It certainly left a fragmented, even rebarbative impression compared to the seamlessness of When Joy Became Mixed with GriefChristian Mason’s contemplation of a sixth-century Jainist account over several ages of declining natural and human wonder; in which violinist Olivia Jago rendered the music’s gently enveloping pathos with unfailing poise, as well as a sure sense of where this deceptively understated music might be headed.

BCMG accordingly took to the stage for Cantus Iambeus, among the more recent of Harrison Birtwistle’s curtain-raisers for ensemble and arguably his most approachable in the unfolding of expressive contours and its frequently diaphanous textures; all underpinned by the role of iambic rhythm in promoting continuity through to an almost inviting final cadence. Nor was there a lack of that intensive interplay as has been a hallmark of this composer’s music from the outset, and to which these musicians responded with their customary precision and verve.

The other pieces (both included on a new NMC release) were by Param Vir, whose music has been a welcome if undervalued presence over four decades. Firstly, the latter two items from his song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars after Rabindranath Tagore – the charm and vivacity of Grandfather’s Holiday then musing inwardness of New Birth, both eloquently rendered by Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen. Finally, to Hayagriva – the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy suddenly moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a final section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety emerging. The analogous sequence ‘red-green-blue’ was reinforced by overhead lighting, even if Vir’s musical trajectory is appreciably more subtle.

BCMG responded to Geoffrey Paterson’s direction with alacrity, not unreasonably pleased to be back performing for a live audience in an impressive indication of what can be expected from this ensemble during the 2021-22 season and barring, one hopes, no more false alarms!

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Wheeling Past the Stars by Param Vir can be found at the NMC website

On record: Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero – John Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives, Harmonielehre (Naxos)

Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero

John Adams
My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003)
Harmonielehre (1985)

Naxos American Classics 8.559854 [69’03”]
Producer Tim Handley
Engineer Trevor Wilkinson

Recorded 5-7 October 2018 (Harmonielehre), 25-27 October 2019 (My Father Knew Charles Ives), Laura Turner Concert Hall, Nashville

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos adds to its coverage of John Adams with this release featuring two major orchestral works – the one among the most enticing of his latter-day output, the other among the most characteristic (and recorded) of the pieces that first accorded him international prominence.

What’s the music like?

Adams has long expressed a penchant for the music of America’s great visionary of the late-Romantic era, and My Father Knew Charles Ives is his oblique while affectionate homage to the composer who gave American classical music its aesthetic basis. Not that the title should be taken literally – rather, the work’s three movements add up to an inclusive portrait of Ives in a way not dissimilar to that of the composer’s orchestral sets. Thus, the opening Concord deftly identifies the cultural environment behind Ives’s thinking besides alluding to some of his most inimitable music, while The Lake builds upon this with evocative and atmospheric writing whose concertante role for piano also finds resonance in the senior composer’s music. The final and longest movement, The Mountain returns to those transcendental strivings as infused Ives’s creative maturity, though its finely sustained initial pages are not followed up by the falling back on well-rehearsed minimalist routines that ensue. Conversely, the closing pages inhabit an ethereal introspection as makes for an understated and affecting apotheosis.

Hard to believe it is now 36 years since Harmonielehre first blazed a trail over the Western musical landscape, or that what once provoked extreme reactions (causing a near riot at the 1987 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) should have come to represent a musical lingua franca imitated many times in the interim. That this earliest of Adams’s ‘symphonic’ works remains among his most representative is fully reaffirmed here. Giancarlo Guerrero finds a viable balance between drama and lyricism in the lengthy opening movement, then builds the mingled Wagnerian and Mahlerian resonances of The Amfortas Wound toward a climax of potent anguish (if such is the music’s intent). The luminous opening of Meister Eckhardt and Quackie demonstrates the best in the Nashville Symphony – as with its superb release of Christopher Rouse (Naxos 8.559852) – and while even astute pacing cannot make the closing peroration sound other than manufactured, the approach yields a methodical and eventful sense of purpose as makes its ‘travelling in hope’ more compelling than any arrival.

Does it all work?

It does, from the perspective that Adams often makes his larger-scale works cohere through sheer force of impact more than formal ingenuity – his trademark post-minimalism proving renewable at almost every turn. Guerrero’s take on My Father Knew Charles Ives is certainly preferable to the composer’s rather calculated account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Nonesuch), while his Harmonielehre can rank high among the seven available recordings of this piece – among which, Kent Nagano with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (Decca) currently leads the field.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when recording and annotations are first rate. Hopefully, future Naxos releases of Adams will explore further his extensive back catalogue and revive such as the impressive ‘symphony’ El Dorado, which still awaits its second recording after virtually three decades.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Naxos website. For more on John Adams, the composer’s website is a great resource. Meanwhile the Nashville Symphony website is here, and you can visit conductor Giancarlo Guerrero’s website here

On record – Yuja Wang, LAPO / Gustavo Dudamel: John Adams – Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (DG)

Yuja Wang (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel

John Adams
Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (2019)
China Gates (1977)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838289 [32’05”]

Recorded November 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is John Adams’ first major work for piano and orchestra since 1997. Its world premiere took place in 2019, with dedicatee Yuja Wang taking the solo part in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The same team are on the money here with the first recording of the substantial new piece – with a contrasting makeweight, as Wang offers one of Adams’ much loved shorter works, the solo piano composition China Gates.

What’s the music like?

In a word, dynamic. The composer’s direction for the first of the three movements of Must the Devil…says a lot – Gritty, Funky, But in strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-Like. It describes the music perfectly, for as Yuja Wang drives the music forward with big, block chords there is a great deal of positive mechanical energy – and indeed a bit of funk. The ‘good tunes’ are not quite so obvious, with the through-composed nature of the piece masking any obvious hooks, but there is a strong and assertive drive forward, like the relentless surge of traffic along a Californian freeway.

The frenetic activity subsides towards the end of the first movement and we get a closer look at Adams’ soul, glimpsed through luminous string textures and sensitive, nocturnal piano writing. The mechanical grind is temporarily forgotten and a tender, thoughtful mood evolves. This leads to the Gently, Relaxed direction, which effectively becomes the concerto’s slow movement, with music of serenity and beautiful colours. As the movement progresses the lines become a little more angular, the strings and piano working together while complemented by softly spoken wind and brass choirs.

Then the energy returns, and we move into the finale with clumps of percussive chords from Wang, leading the orchestra in a section marked Obsession / Swing. The cross rhythms sway, generating exciting momentum between piano and orchestra, and Wang throws her all at the piano as it issues massive, repetitive statements, the obsession growing ever greater towards the end and the sound of a bell, with which Adams brings an end to the three rounds.

China Gates is a much-needed repose, its meditative thoughts given in an unbroken, fluid stream.

Does it all work?

Yes, and is hard to fault in this performance. The musical language is familiar – recognisably John Adams in its long lines of busy activity – and it could be argued some of these statements are familiar too, closely related to previous large-scale utterances. But the performance is ideal, a white knuckle ride in the faster sections and a cool reverie in the memorable slower parts. China Gates is the ideal foil.

Yuja Wang is brilliant throughout, a whirlwind of energy in the fast music of Must the Devil…and a model of sensitivity in the quieter music.

Is it recommended?

Fans of Adams’ music will not hesitate – and nor should newcomers either, for not only is the music very listenable it is presented in terrific recorded sound. A DG release with all the fireworks for sure, and if there are no recognisably good tunes to hum afterwards there is plenty to enjoy. John Adams’ positive energy wins through once again.

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Deutsche Grammophon website

Playlist – Sound of Mind 7: Strings and things

Here is another playlist for your delectation, in the new age of ‘staying in’.

This one features works for strings of very different character, from the energetic works by John Adams and Tchaikovsky to a more reflective, serene approach from Philip Glass and Sir Edward Elgar. You get an idea here of the versatility of the string orchestra, which can be by turns sombre and bracing.

Enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood