John Adams roots himself in tradition, but on his own terms

John Adams, the composer, is the rare example of an artist who is able to have it all.

He writes contemporary music that appeals to audiences and critics alike without being tarred with the brush of commercial popularization. He is known for having rocked the boat by taking up the torch of minimalism and writing provocative operas on modern themes — yet his work is deliberately linked to classical music’s long historic tradition. He has developed a second career as a conductor, which is a great way for a composer to get his work out there — not that Adams, these days, needs a lot of help in that department.

And his “City Noir,” the 2009 piece he conducted Thursday night with the National Symphony Orchestra, was written for Gustavo Dudamel’s first season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — possibly the highest-profile gig on the American orchestra scene.

Conducting concert programs also allows Adams to establish himself as a continuation of tradition rather than a break from it. By conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble last week at the Library of Congress, he put himself in a line with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. And his forebears on the NSO program (which repeats Friday and Saturday night at the Kennedy Center at 8 p.m.) were Respighi and Ravel. The message about 20th-century masters comes through loud and clear: The ICE concert stressed innovation, and the NSO program turns the focus on brilliant orchestration. Sure, it takes some hubris to present yourself in that light, but it takes some hubris to be a conductor, and Adams can basically back up his claims.

Adams is not a great conductor. He is, however, a very good and very smart musician, and there is also a lot to be said for hearing someone conduct the music who genuinely and obviously likes it — gesturing energetically, with a big grin, at some particularly nice or emphatic point.

He’s also good at drawing connections between works, though Thursday’s program felt a little overstated in that regard. All three composers use or used a broader-than-usual range of orchestral color, playing with all the different sounds the instruments of an orchestra can make. Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” is a Late-
Romantic evocation of particular places in a particular city; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G draws on the influences of jazz; and Adams’s own “City Noir” did both. It’s a symphony with solo interludes, depicting the Los Angeles of film-noir and film scores, with evocations of jazz color. Adams, in short, was touching on the idea of historical inevitability: All roads lead to him. That is how any artist, at bottom, thinks: We are all the sums of our influences, as Adams said, more or less, in a few spoken remarks to the audience.

A better conductor would have been able to back up the argument better. In Adams’s hands, the richness of the orchestration often became a wash of sound sloshing around the stage. This was particularly incongruous in Ravel’s fastidious score, though the conductor did pull out a few nice details.

The orchestra also kept surging to cover the sound of Jeremy Denk on the piano — a shame, because Denk did an excellent job, and, though he’s played frequently in Washington, he was making his NSO debut. Denk is a good partner for Adams; they’re both smart and articulate and make music in a way that implies their verbal abilities. I’ve said before that Denk plays as if he were explaining the score to you, drawing you through. But where Adams inclines to the cerebral, Denk is all heart. His performance here kept overt emoting to a minimum but found delight in relative understatement.

“City Noir,” Adams said, was conceived of as “a symphony that was a film-noir score that didn’t stop,” drawing on the language of film music, its abrupt shifts of mood and surges of emotion, but without the cuts.

Throughout his career, Adams has had a knack for embracing the world in which we live in his music, with influences ranging from Looney Tunes cartoons to electric violins. Referencing mid-century film scores is another indirect way to inscribe himself in classical tradition, since much film music was shaped by classically trained emigre composers.

My reservation about this impressive work is precisely that it doesn’t stop. Its unremitting intensity, deliberate though it be, becomes, to my ear, a too-insistent assertion of its own importance. It’s a Big Work that lets you know it is, though it’s full of moments of brilliance that leave you no choice but to applaud.

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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