Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have a new John Adams CD on release this week, featuring Absolute Jest – with the St Lawrence String Quartet – and Grand Pianola Music – with pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, and Synergy Vocals. Both pieces were written specifically for the Symphony, almost 30 years apart, and both were recorded for this CD during live performances at Davies Symphony Hall – Absolute Jest in May 2013, and Grand Pianola Music in January of this year.
“The San Francisco Symphony,” says Music Director Tilson Thomas, “has had the tremendous good fortune of collaborating with John Adams over many decades.” It’s been a highly significant creative partnership, and a successful one as well – the MTT-SFS recording of Adams’ Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine having won a 2012 Grammy award for Best Orchestral Performance, and Germany’s coveted ECHO Klassik Prize.
Absolute Jest takes its inspiration from the scherzos of Beethoven’s late string quartets – a work which Adams describes as “a colossal twenty-five-minute scherzo in which I take fragments of Beethoven’s music and subject them to my own peculiar developmental techniques”. “The ‘jest’ of the title,” he says, “should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta’: doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.”
An SFS co-commission for the Celebration of the Symphony’s Centennial Season, Absolute Jest was premiered during MTT and the Orchestra’s acclaimed American Mavericks Festival in 2012, and they have since performed it on tour in the US and in Europe, each time with the St Lawrence String Quartet. This is the first available recording of the work.
Michael Tilson Thomas, the Symphony and the St Lawrence Quartet will be performing the work during their forthcoming European Festivals Tour in August and September – at the Edinburgh International Festival, the Berlin Festival (German premiere), in Bucharest at the George Enescu Festival (Romanian premiere), and at the Lucerne Festival (Swiss premiere). More information about the tour can be found on the following links:
August tour performances, September tour performances.
According to John Adams, Grand Pianola Music came about as a result of what he calls “a dream image” in which two black stretch limousines which he saw on a highway turned into “the world’s longest Steinway pianos …. [which] gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios”, and which reminded him of his teaching days at the San Francisco Conservatory when he used to hear in the hallways the “sonic blur” of twenty or more pianos “playing Chopin, the Emperor Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf rag and much more”.
On this new recording, Adams leads artists of the San Francisco Symphony, guest soloists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, and the vocal group Synergy Vocals. It’s a work scored for two pianos, three female voices, winds, brass and percussion, and it premiered on February 26, 1982, at the Japan Center Theatre. That performance, also led by Adams, was part of the Symphony’s Festival of New and Unusual Music. The work’s first performance at Davies Symphony Hall was during the first American Mavericks Festival in the year 2000, on which occasion Adams conducted the New World Symphony.
John Adams’ Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music have been recorded by the San Francisco Symphony on the orchestra’s in-house label, SFS Media, launched in 2001, and which has to date won eight Grammy Awards. All SFS Media recordings are available from the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and online at sfsymphony.org/store, digitally on itunes.com/sfsymphony, and from all major retailers and other digital outlets worldwide. A promotional video about this latest recording can be viewed on this link.
Sources of information:
San Francisco Symphony