ACJW at Zankel

ACJW conducted by John Adams (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)

On Monday May 10, one could sense the palpable excitement from the youngish musicians of the Ensemble ACJW. In a program at Zankel Hall that concluded Carnegie Hall’s festival celebrating music by Louis Andriessen, they were led by none other than composer/conductor John Adams. Indeed, the wind section got somewhat carried away; physical histrionics were a bit over the top as they grooved along with their guest conductor in a spirited rendition of his recent Son of Chamber Symphony. That said, for contemporary fare, nothing beats the enthusiasm of energetic musicians coupled with impressive technical facility: both attributes ACJW possesses in abundance.

Son of Chamber Symphony is a follow-up/companion piece to one of Adam’s finest works from the 1990s.  It revisits some of the music from that work in subtle ways; for instance, the Chamber Symphony’s cartoon-inspired “roadrunner music” reappeared in places as a welcome guest star.  But in addition to commenting on its predecessor, SoCS also served to demonstrate the stylistic and material growth Adams’ music has undergone since the early 1990s. The central movement is some of the most elegantly neoclassic music Adams has created to date, combining Purcellian ostinati with Stravinsky’s harmonic palette. The finale is an impressive, breakneck-paced slice of Adams’ signature postminimalism. The composer suggests that it recalls the music from the “News” aria in his opera Nixon in China; but the ensemble deployments and metric shifts are even more ambitious here – thrilling stuff!

Denk with ACJW (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)

Pianist Jeremy Denk joined ACJW as the soloist in Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds. Denk’s take on the concerto exuded rhythmic zest and gestural verve - characteristics which had become signatures of the evening. He also pointed up some of the jazzier passages and the occasionally motoric, pianola quality that the composer adopted in some of the piece’s ostinato passages. Denk preferred accentuating the concerto’s quirkiness and angular construction, reminding us that Stravinsky’s neoclassical period was often full of sauciness and surprises.

Composed in 1976, Andriessen’s De Staat, based on Plato’s Republic, is a relentless piece. Electric guitar and bass plus an amplified quartet of singers bring this work closer to the amplitude of rock music; but its score remains dauntingly virtuosic.

Andriessen's amps go to 11 (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)

During a mid-concert interview, Adams acknowledged as much, stating that,”The audience may feel at certain points that the something’s intensity has gone on long enough – that they’d like a little break – only for the music to take up something even more over-the-top.” Adams went on to say that he preferred working on this piece with young musicians, rather than established orchestral performers, who might view its challenges with a more jaundiced eye.

Based on the talent and enthusiasm on display here. One imagines that the ACJW musicians, many of whom are ‘graduating’ this year, will bring that commitment with them to whichever orchestras or academic institutions they inhabit.