Composer John Adams leads an evening of music for the mind, if not the heart


International Contemporary Ensemble. (Carrie Schneider)

John Adams has become the face of new music for a certain sector of the population. That sector includes presenters.

There might be composers who are better known or more prolific — although not many — but Adams has developed a distinctive sideline as a programmer. He not only writes a lot of music, but he also knows a lot about music, and he can even, to a point, conduct music. He has brought those skills together in a number of mini-festivals across the country, most recently at the Library of Congress.

This past weekend saw the last two nights of a four-day Adams celebration, with the composer himself taking the stage Friday night to conduct works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky and himself.

You couldn’t have asked for better performers; the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble are crack players. They needed to be. Although Adams has become a not-infrequent guest on orchestral podiums — he’ll lead the National Symphony Orchestra later this week — conducting is not his strongest suit. He brings a lot of energy and intelligence to music, which is undeniably engaging, but he’s weaker on balances and dynamics — meaning that the evening was loud and boisterous, a regular golden retriever of a contemporary program.

It was certainly a program that showed the fun in music without any pandering. It began with the “Grande Suite” of Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat,” which presents the vibrant score liberated from its (to me, somewhat labored) theatrical narrative, beguiling the ear with Stravinsky’s distinctive juxtapositions of the timbres of trumpet, trombone and bassoon.

It also included a recent work, “La forma dello spazio,” by a Canadian composer unknown to me, Zosha Di Castri, who placed two of the piece’s five instruments at the back of the auditorium and sent sustained, whirling snippets of sound out into the room, making the music an object occupying the same space as the listener.

But the evening’s main axis involved two chamber symphonies: Schoenberg’s Op. 9 and Adams’s “Son of Chamber Symphony,” the second of two chamber symphonies that Adams wrote as a kind of response to Schoenberg’s work. Both are lively, virtuosic pieces — Schoenberg’s filled with the energy of youth, Adams’s with the energy of practiced experience.

Written in 2007 (and incidentally commissioned for Stanford Lively Arts by the new president of the Washington Performing Arts Society, Jenny Bilfield), the latter piece dazzles with veritably acrobatic feats of compositional skill. As an intellectual exercise, it’s terrific; less so, perhaps, as an emotional one: The second movement, the requisite lyrical statement, dragged for me, while the third movement — rife with quotations from Adams’s own earlier works — sizzled.

Overall, indeed, it was an evening for the head rather than the heart, one to be appreciated more than deeply loved — though having fun can be a form of love. The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony is breathtaking and zany, taking tonality and shaking it up until it nearly explodes. It was a little hard to hear in Adams’s reading, but the spirit of the work came across.

And if Adams seemed to be placing himself deliberately in heady company with this program, he ceded the last word to Schoenberg, who brought the audience to its feet.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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