Wordless Music packed The Church of St. Paul the Apostle last night by offering what was a surprisingly snoozy program. The chief somnambulists were Gavin Bryars and John Adams. Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic and Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity both underscore pre-recorded tape tracks with autumnal, string-choir textures. Passive and reflective, both pieces are pretty; but, as sometimes happens when reflecting, the same tracks get tread over and over again, and the process, if drawn out for too long, becomes an essay in narcissism. To that end, Bryars’s Sinking lasts a lip-smacking forty minutes; Adams’s Zeal clocks in at a more sober fifteen. (Bryars’s fans can scream about “conceptual art” in the comments, but I’m not biting.)
Fortunately Jonny Greenwood had some vigor in him. By contrast with the other pieces, his Popcorn Superhet Receiver for string orchestra was a downright wild time filled with contrast and surprise. Just by boiling down a few diatonic washes into unisons, he evidenced the widest tonal pallet on the program. And for around ten minutes, Greenwood sustains a satisfying form. Things go wrong, however, with a poorly integrated up-tempo section which threatens to get incongruously poppy. But this quickly comes to a halt, the beautiful surges that define the earlier music return, and in the end Greenwood proves himself an auspicious new voice on the contemporary classical scene.