Monday, February 13, 2017
John Adams at SoundBox
The world-famous Bay Area composer John Adams was the host for the latest SoundBox nightclub concert at the back of Davies Hall on Saturday night. The concert turned out to be a generous, fascinating introduction to the work of three young composers augmented by a few chamber works by Adams himself. He began his introductions with a story about meeting Aaron Copland when that dean of American composers was about 70 years old, the age Adams is turning on February 15th. “He listened to a piece I had composed that was very aggressive, with lots of found noise including recorded samples of pots and pans banging against each other, and a roommate reciting excerpts from Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. Copland’s reaction to the piece was that he found it ‘intimidating,’ which was very sweet. So the music I’ll be introducing tonight will be from young composers whose work I find intimidating.”
The concert started with Try, Andrew Norman’s work for chamber orchestra that Adams noted was an extreme test for every instrumentalist, “pushing them as far as they can go in terms of virtuosity.” Christopher Rountree, above, was the conductor in an exuberant performance that turned spare and spiritual for the final five minutes after a manic ten minute opening.
This was followed by Hallelujah Junction, Adams’ 1996 work for two pianos, a rambunctious and motoric piece of “road music,” played with ferocious brilliance by Orli Shaham and Molly Morkoski, with a video specially created for the occasion by photographer Deborah O’Grady.
Adams introduced the piece by mentioning that after a pastoral interlude in the middle, Hallelujah Junction gets wild, and that he expected to see smoke coming out of the pianos by the end of the performance the previous evening. On Saturday night, that description didn’t sound like hyperbole. (Pictured above are left to right O’Grady, Morkoski, Shaham and Adams.)
After intermission, Adams introduced the composer Ashley Fure, whose Shiver Lung was one of the most interesting soundscapes I have ever heard. “It’s just about perfect for SoundBox,” Adams commented, because the Meyer Sound system was ideal for the ring of subwoofers circling the audience projecting sound waves too low for human ears to register. Performers slid their hands across the surface of the speakers which literally drew out the sound from them, starting delicately and gradually intensifying into an apocalyptic nightmare.
When Adams asked Fure to explain the piece, she mentioned that it was part of a longer installation opera, The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, and that this section involved “two sopranos trying to send a warning by whispering indecipherable messages through bullhorns in an unintelligible language.” Amy Foote and Danielle Reutter Harrah, on a raised stage in the center of the room, gave fearless, striking performances, alternating between cries, whispers, and snatches of melodic singing.
Adams waxed rhapsodically about the next piece, Ripple the Sky, by Jacob Cooper. As a thematic starting point, the composer took the historic farewell of the manic-depressive 19th century composer, Robert Schumann, from his wife Clara on his way to a mental institution where he spent the rest of his life. Cooper not only wrote the charming minimalist-tinged music for a chamber orchestra and vocal soloist, but created an accompanying Matthew Barney style video of a man trudging across sand being entangled with a woman whose face is covered in flowers. (Clara famously gave Robert a bouquet as he left in the carriage to his incarceration.)
The singing by Jonathan Woody above of fragments from Ophelia’s “mad songs” and the Schumanns’ diaries and letters was lovely.
I wasn’t able to stay for the final third of the concert because my companion got sick. That was disappointing because they played excerpts from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, Adams’ 1994 piece written for the Kronos Quartet which begins and ends with the irresistibly charming Judah to Ocean which depicts a ride on San Francisco's N Judah Muni streetcar line. In the 1970s, Adams was a resident composer with the San Francisco Symphony and was in charge of putting together the New and Unusual Music series. This concert felt as if he had come full circle, and if SoundBox manages to survive past its three-year trial run, my fervent wish would be for a John Adams curated concert every year.