John Adams, “Son of Chamber Symphony”/String Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble, St. Lawrence String Quartet, John Adams. Nonesuch
In 2007, American composer John Adams said he was working on a follow-up to his “Chamber Symphony,” composed in 1992. He joked then that he was thinking of calling it “Son of Chamber Symphony,” which has a much better ring for a sequel than the more pedestrian “No. 2.” The name stuck, and “Son of Chamber Symphony” made its premiere later that fall.
The title makes explicit the parentage of the later work, and in this case it may be a little too much of “like father, like son.”
The elder ‘‘Chamber Symphony” was a rock-fueled bacchanal in the outer movements, paced by the trap set, with cowbell-smack echoes of Bernstein’s “Mambo” in the first movement, “Mongrel Airs.” (That movement was named “to honor a British critic who complained that my music lacked breeding,” as Adams famously put it, so I had better choose my words carefully.)
As with so much of Adams’s music, one has the sense of a sort of mathematical schema in both works, a set of patterns in each movement, wound up like a clock mechanism and allowed to tick to its conclusion.
Like much of Philip Glass’s music, “Son of Chamber Symphony” begs for visual accompaniment. Indeed, Mark Morris created for the work a choreography, called “Joyride,” for the San Francisco Ballet in 2008. Adams leads the International Contemporary Ensemble in a performance that pops and bubbles, but once the fizz fizzles, there is not much left to remember, except perhaps the Ravel-like slow movement’s languorous tinges of celesta, harmonic clusters outlined by arching woodwind melodies and warm solo violin shadowed by cello.
Both of the Adams chamber symphonies pale by comparison to the formal complexity and orchestrational variety of their model, Arnold Schoenberg’s youthful Op. 9 “Kammersymphonie.”
“Son of Chamber Symphony” is far overshadowed by its companion on this disc, the String Quartet composed by Adams in 2008. The St. Lawrence String Quartet performs the piece, which was written for the musical ensemble. .
Adams has said that he was persuaded to write in this most traditional of chamber music genres because of the energy and pizazz of the quartet, and that comes across most emphatically in this recording.
With only four instruments, Adams creates many more variations of texture and sound, especially in the long, multi-sectional first movement.
This is music one wants to hear many more times — and each hearing reveals new facets.
Downey is a freelance writer.