NSO Pieces Together John Adams's Patchwork

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Readers of a certain age may recall a television program called "Name That Tune," wherein a few notes would be played and contestants would attempt to identify the song. John Adams's "Harmonielehre" (1985), which the National Symphony Orchestra played last night at the Kennedy Center in honor of the composer's 60th birthday, might have been better named "Spot That Influence," for there isn't much in its 40-odd minutes that seems uniquely Adams's own.

Even setting aside the outright quotations -- from the Sibelius Symphony No. 4, from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 and from Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder," among others -- much of the piece comes across as appropriated, a tour of distant masterpieces as seen through cheap binoculars.

It is as though Adams were attempting to tell us, in music, just what he was listening to when he was confecting "Harmonielehre" in 1984. (Hello, Philip Glass; hello, Ralph Vaughan Williams -- and a big tip of the hat to Igor Stravinsky!) He even borrows from himself, with snippets that recall his infinitely superior early work "Shaker Loops." At such moments, "Harmonielehre" doesn't seem a free-standing composition so much as a bibliography.

And yet, heard in concert, and especially when it is played with the energy and bright colors that NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin summoned from his ensemble last night, "Harmonielehre" manages to win one over with a certain hammered, visceral excitement. For better and for worse, Slatkin loves pastiche, and he is good at it, highlighting just the elements that will permit a listener to hold on through stylistic metamorphoses. Few contemporary conductors are so adept at "explaining" an unfamiliar work to an audience; even had Slatkin skipped his customary spoken introduction, he still would have put this music across.

To this taste, however, the great performance of the night was of the Concerto in A Minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra by Johannes Brahms. The soloists, a pair of extraordinarily talented French brothers -- violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier Capuçon -- played their parts as if they had been taken directly from Bach solo suites, with gravity and an austere purity that suited the music exactly.

I think it is always helpful if musicians who play the so-called "Double Concerto" are used to working together (an NSO performance some five years ago featured two admirable musicians, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Lynn Harrell, who might have been playing in parallel universes). Last night, the Capuçon brothers played as one -- the seraphic loveliness of the second movement! -- and Slatkin made a splendid accompanist, both generous and authoritative.

The evening began with Debussy's Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun," with some exhilaratingly slithery solo flute playing by Toshiko Kohno, downy strings and luscious wind sounds all around.

The program will be repeated tonight at 7 and tomorrow night at 8.

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