John Adams is almost 60 (February 15), and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert last night had Adams as conductor of three of his works. It appeared to me to be the largest audience in the series, with even some people up in the organ-loft seats facing the conductor. The concert was a pleasure, a treat. Only a curmudgeon could have been dissatisfied at the exuberance and joy of the evening, feeling that serious music shouldn’t have that much fun associated with it.
The program opened with “China Gates” (1977), a work for piano solo in which Adams was using minimalist techniques with occasional appearances of a distinctive voice. (I’ll use links to Adams’ own web site which gives a clip from each work.) Then there was a vibrant, toe-tapping, romp of a performance of his concerto for clarinet and chamber orchestra, “Gnarly Buttons” (1996). Derek Bermel, who was composer and soloist in his own concerto a few years ago, conducted by Adams, did a great job with this challenging solo role. Surrounding the clarinet were four violins, two each violas, cellos and basses, trombone, English horn, bassoon, guitar/mandolin/banjo, piano and sampler keyboard (with a range of sound samples including a cow, who in this sample, in this hall, sounded severely injured). This was fun.
“Grand Pianola Music” (1982) was performed after intermission; you might be interested in reading Adams’ comments about this work by following the link and scrolling down. This is an odd work, somewhat of a chamber concerto for two pianos and three sopranos. I don’t particularly like the work on the recording I have; I found that a half hour of piano arpeggios got very tiring, and it was like being forced to listen to a recording of Liberace doing his Czerny exercises. Last night, however, something clicked for me. I felt the enjoyment and pleasure in the piece. After letting the memory of last night fade a bit more I’ll go back to the recording and see how I react now.
As an additional recognition of Adams, the Phil’s concert last weekend, including a performance Sunday at Orange County’s new Segerstrom Concert Hall, had Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Adams symphony, “Naive and Sentimental Music” (1999). The first work on the program was Beethoven’s Second. As Mark Swed pointed out, we’ve come a long way since a new piece of music had to be both fairly short and first on the program so that the real music lovers wouldn’t have themselves contaminated by this modern stuff. I’d bet that since the Phil gave the premiere in 1999, the Adams symphony has been on more Philharmonic programs than any other work, possibly excepting “Rite of Spring”.