Washington is John Adams’s home for the rest of May. This week, the celebrated composer is curating a four-concert series of his music at the Library of Congress and the Atlas Performing Arts Center, and next week he is leading the National Symphony. The opening offering, Wednesday evening at the library, was in the hands of the young, New York-based Attacca Quartet, an energetic group that recently recorded all of Adams’s string quartets.
Adams’s “String Quartet (2008)” was heard at the library shortly after it was written, and for me, it has grown in stature. Although he uses chugging minimalism as an occasional texture, the work is far more substantial than anything from Philip Glass or Steve Reich. The musical ideas are distinct, colorful and powerful, and tied together in an organically constructed narrative. Unlike so many works today, this one makes you want to hear what’s next — not out of curiosity, but out of being pulled along by the force of the ideas.
“John’s Book of Alleged Dances” for quartet and electronics, written much earlier, is less successful. The track is essentially a percussion part (realized on a prepared piano — a throwback to the seminal work of John Cage) and immediately raises the question, why not just have a live percussionist or pianist? A musician could interact and adjust, but the Attacca couldn’t keep up with the electronic track in the “Dogjam” movement. All of the quartet-only portions were more musically interesting.
Adams also gave his imprimatur to a Library of Congress commission of “Early to Rise” by Timo Andres, premiered at the concert. Andres’s style is perhaps a bit more severe and intellectual than Adams’s. Andres, in his late 20s, has a fairly distinctive voice, or at least one that owes nothing particularly to any one influence. It features sophisticated string writing with a pleasing balance of euphony and dissonance — with the latter still expressing cogent musical ideas rather than simply abnegation.
Attacca is a group of great promise; its first violinist is an impressive artist whose playing combines imagination and virtuosity. As a whole, the quartet is well-balanced and well-drilled. Intonation slips were few but glaring, bespeaking only lapses in concentration rather than ability. The cellist’s childish mugging, however, will need to be tamed if Attacca hopes to be taken seriously in the profession.
Battey is a freelance writer.