Music Review

Music review: As flawed conductor, Adams offers insights into the music

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

One truism about composers who conduct is that they're not that great at it. Another is that, because they are creative artists, there is something special about them doing it.

John Adams, curator, conductor and composer, led the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night in the second of two programs heavily dedicated to his work -- the conclusion of a "Perspectives" series/residency at the Kennedy Center. Conducting Britten, Stravinsky (two other composers who conducted) and two pieces of his own, he demonstrated the truth of both truisms.

First: Adams is not a great conductor in a technical sense; he keeps an energetic beat, but the finesse required to bring off the details of Stravinsky's early "Feu d'artifice" or the aching emotion of the "Moonlight" interlude from Britten's "Peter Grimes" is not in his arsenal.

Second: He brought something special to the program. Hearing Britten and Stravinsky through his ears, and in combination with his work, cast light not only on their music, but also on his own. For anyone who wants music to have a point of view, this concert (which repeats Friday afternoon and Saturday evening) had a lot to offer.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, Adams has morphed into America's leading composer -- a label like a Good Housekeeping seal affixed to his work. Reich might be more brilliant, Glass more familiar to the public at large, but Adams is the reigning king of classical music's large institutions -- the orchestras and opera houses where Glass only intermittently features and Reich appears very little.

Adams, though, is all over them. He curates festivals at Carnegie Hall and is creative chair with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; his operas are done in the world's major opera houses. His memoir "Hallelujah Junction," published in 2008, helped polish the legend with its self-consciously semi-candid account of his New England childhood and California coming-of-age as a maverick composer who incorporated the anarchy and pulse of minimalism and the orchestra of Wagner into a rhythmic, propulsive, lush style of his own.

For my money, though, "The Dharma at Big Sur," the concerto for six-string electric violin that Leila Josefowicz played with him Thursday night, is a more satisfying autobiography and demonstration of what Adams is about. Written for the opening of Los Angeles's Walt Disney Hall in 2003, the piece depicts East crashing into West. The clarity and fog and tangy freshness of Pacific surf are evoked by the unexpected flavor of the electric instrument, its strings tuned slightly differently from the orchestral norm (just intonation as opposed to equal temperament), pulling the orchestra's sounds along after it like a Pied Piper as it spins out a nearly unbroken narrative line.

The piece could be funkier than it was in this performance; Josefowicz (decked out in a bright, California-like print) could be slightly too exquisite, and toward the end the orchestra sounded briefly clumsy before launching into a final ecstatic jam session. But it's a fine work, and the audience loved it.

It also picked up on some elements of Britten's four "Peter Grimes" interludes, and not only because (as the composer underlined in brief spoken comments from the stage) both are seascapes. Hearing what amounted to Adams's deconstruction of these "Grimes" pieces was revelatory. He relished them for their sound as much as their emotion, and "Sunday Morning," the second interlude, opened up into colors and depths I'd never heard in it before. Not that Adams is without emotion; the final "Storm" interlude grew muddy from attempted intensity, its phrases blunted from the attempt to force out feeling.

The least satisfying part of the evening was its close, "Doctor Atomic Symphony." This piece suffered from the same high seriousness that afflicts the opera of the same name, about the development of the atomic bomb. Its subject is so grave that the music, in its effort to convey that, becomes top-heavy, even pompous.

There is some fine music in the opera, but it suffers from stasis, and the symphony fails to correct the problem. You hear the sounds of Doom and Anguish and Very Serious Things Happening, while the voices of the singers are given to the brass (J. Robert Oppenheimer becomes a trumpet). Adams, like many composers, does best when the message is the music.

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