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 (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)

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