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John Adams Hosts NY Phil's CONTACT! at SubCulture

DSC09186Two days after joining in the standing ovation for John Adams during curtain calls at the final performance of The Death of Klinghoffer at The Met, it was strange, to say the least, to be stitting less than five feet from him last night at SubCulture. (He was, conspicuously, wearing the same plaid jacket and shirt.) Adams, who was there to host the NY Phil's first CONTACT! new music concert of the season, made it clear from the outset that he wasn't supposed to be the center of attention, either as a composer or conductor. Rather, he was merely asked to curate and serve as the evening's host. 

This was the first opportunity I'd had to attend CONTACT! since it moved to SubCulture last season - how has that not happened already? - and the small, intimate room is a big improvement over Symphony Space and the Met's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, both of which feel a bit big and sterile for this sort of music. With carte blanche to do whatever he wished, Adams chose to highlight the music of some of his favorite young composers, all of whom have also appeared on the LA Phil's Green Umbrella new music series, where Adams serves as Creative Chair

"Back when I was in my 30's," Adams told us in his casual, incisive opening remarks, "it was still the Bad Old Days in American music, where everything was supposed to be written according to the principals of Serialism and 12 Tone music. Things have really opened up now, and I don't think there's been a better time for music in this country."

First up was Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason's cello concerto Bow to String (2009), which I first heard in LA two years ago on one of Adam's Green Umbrella concerts, with the Icelandic cellist Saeuun Thorsteinsdottir. Played here by NY Phil cellist Nathan Vickery, the music was repetitive and propulsive music to start, then tender and sad before fading away at the end in a Mahler-like brood. Later in the program, a trio of Philharmonic musicians played his Five Possibilities (2014), which ranged from spiky and insistent to quiet and lyrical.

DSC09202Adams has been friends with Ingram Marshall for forty years - he recounted how he used to go over to Marshall's San Francisco loft and eat meals cooked on a Coleman camping stove - so it made sense that he broke up the young composer hegemony with Marshall's Muddy Waters (2004). Based on a tune from a 17th century New England psalmbook (though the blues singer also figures in at the end), Adams warned us that the music has "a lot of butter in it" at the outset, with electronics and a weird mix of instruments ("I would never try to write for this ensemble," he said), but quickly resolves into a more cheerful, clarified state. The Phil musicians really showed their chops here, with crisp, clean playing and beautiful, clear sustains. As good and vital as all the young NYC new music groups are, CONTACT's raison d'être has never been more clear.DSC09210Missy Mazzoli wrote Dissolve, O My Heart for violinist Jennifer Koh in 2010, basing it on Bach's Chaconne, arguably the most famous work ever written for solo violin. Played here with grace and precision by Anna Rabinova, the music has a circular structure, with a series of off-kilter chords that eventually collapse in on themselves. It was a worthy successor to Bach's masterpiece, even if Missy claims she failed in her intentions. "Oh, is that what failure sounds like?" Adams quipped. "I'd say that's pretty good."DSC09217The concert ended with Timo AndresEarly to Rise, his second work for string quartet. "I just finished my second quartet," Adams noted. "It's the scariest kind of writing there is, because there's nowhere to hide." Timo agreed, saying he tries not to think about the great quartets by Beethoven and Mozart, as he doesn't want them to stifle his own voice. In Early to Rise, Timo takes as his casting off point a theme from a late Schumann piano work, retaining that composer's passionate romanticism while adding in some of his own spikiness for contrast. 

After the concert, everyone congregated around the bar, where at one end Adams was enjoying a beer out of a Dixie cup, cordially greeting musicians and audience members alike. After we all got kicked out, around 9:30, Adams turned into the Pied Piper, leading a giddy group of composers and musicians down Bleecker Street to some yet-to-be-determined bar. I headed in the opposite direction to the F train, but man, I sure would have enjoyed hanging out in that booth for awhile.  DSC09213
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