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John Adams Conducts the Yale Philharmonia and Brentano Quartet

by Nick Stubblefield

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Bernstein. Mahler. Stravinsky. These men were all highly-respected composer/conductors found in music history textbooks. Flip to the end of that textbook, and one is likely to find another: John Adams. As a long-time admirer of Adams' compositions, I was elated at the opportunity to see him conduct the Yale Philharmonia with the Brentano String Quartet at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall last Sunday.

As I stepped into the hall, moments before the 5 o'clock showtime, I was astonished to note the number of empty seats. I gleefully snagged one near the front.

The program opened with Igor Stravinsky's ballet Orpheus. I was surprised by Adams' choice to start the program on such a slow, gentle tone, considering orchestra concerts often begin with something uptempo and grabbing. (Adams cited Stravinsky as a major influence on his own musical career.) Still, Orpheus is haunting and beautiful, and I was drawn immediately to the delicate plucks of the harp as they nestled themselves amongst a bed of lush, dark strings and sometimes eerie and dissonant woodwind passages. 

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Margaretta Mitchell, Nonesuch.org

Adams' Absolute Jest was a wildly-dynamic and exciting piece of music, and my favorite part of the program. The demanding string passages, reconstituted from Beethoven's late string quartets, were authoritatively performed by the Brentano String Quartet. Absolute Jest is characterized by intense, tricky passages demanding a great deal from the string players. While Adams' music occasionally lingered in one area, similar to the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich., Absolute Jest was just as influenced by music from the Classical and Romantic periods.

The concert ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4.  Despite a gentle, almost distant-sounding opening, the piece built to some thrilling peaks, again showcasing some the superb string players. The Philharmonia played with plenty of vigor and emotion. Only upon the closest examintation would you even notice the occasionally less-than-confident long tone from a horn or woodwind.  

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