At the end of last week SFS Media released its latest recording of concert performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) made in Davies Symphony Hall. There are two compositions on the album, both by John Adams and both providing excellent examples of his capacity for wit. Both were composed for SFS, but they are separated by about 31 years. “Grand Pianola Music” was first performed in 1982 as part of the orchestra’s Festival of New and Unusual Music. “Absolute Jest,” on the other hand, was composed for the orchestra’s Centennial Season and first performed in 2012. The recordings for this release took place at concerts given in May of 2013 (“Absolute Jest”) and January of 2015 (“Grand Pianola Music”).
It will be very difficult for me to give an impersonal account of this recording. “Grand Pianola Music” provided my first exposure to Adams’ music in a concert setting; and I was fortunate enough to experience it that way twice. The first was at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where, to my great surprise, it met with a relatively hostile response. The second was in Royce Hall at the University of California in Los Angeles, where the audience was far more positively receptive. One result of these experiences is that I wish that “Grand Pianola Music” had preceded “Absolute Jest” on this new recording, simply because explicitly witty rhetoric of the earlier composition can beneficially orient how the attentive listener will approach the later one.
Readers of this site may recall that last February I referred to Adams’ “particular knack from drawing humor out of circumstances of high seriousness.” Seriousness was at its highest when Adams composed “Harmonium” for the opening season of SFS in Davies Symphony Hall; and I suggested that Adams was in need of “psychic cleansing” following the intense effort he put into that piece. In place of a full orchestra and chorus (the score recommending a minimum of 90 performers for the latter) required for “Harmonium,” “Grand Pianola Music” was basically scored for a chamber orchestra for fifteen instrumentalists, not counting the number of people required to hold down the percussion section (three being a good number), the two piano soloists, and the three female vocalists. (The photograph in the new recording’s booklet has an excellent photograph of those fifteen instrumentalists and two pianists, Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham.)
Furthermore, just as Adams himself has written a vivid account of working on his chamber symphony during a period of intense study of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 9 chamber symphony (which happens to have been scored for fifteen solo instruments) while his son was watching cartoons (probably from the Looney Tunes series) on television in the next room, he has provided an equally vivid description of a “vision” that inspired “Grand Pianola Music.” That description can be found on the Music Sales Classical Web page for the piece, which definitely enhances the experience of listening to this music: “Grand Pianola Music … started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinways … twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of B[-flat] and E[-flat] major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emperor Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag, and much more.”
(Unabashed personal aside: John, I wish you could have been with me when I visited the conservatory in Hanoi. It was an old multi-story building with an inner courtyard. Standing in that courtyard you could hear music descending upon you from all levels of all four sides. John Cage would have marveled at the effect!)
“Grand Pianola Music” is not quite a chamber concerto, since the pianos never get very far beyond playing cadenzas; and, while Adams has called the vocalists “sirens,” it has been hard for me to think of them as being anything other than The Supremes (even if I have yet to see vocalists capture the essence of the moves from a performance by The Supremes). The bottom line is that this music is an unabashed hoot. It is hard not to be impressed by just how many performances and recordings this composition has attained.
Nevertheless, this new release definitely deserves attention. Indeed, it is one of those cases in which audio capture has prevailed over the actual concert hall experience. The fact is that I was in Davies on January 16, 2015, and the space was not particularly conducive. For all of its outrageous yawps, the music is still on a chamber scale; and, compared with the 92nd Street Y and Royce Hall, Davies was just too cavernous a space. Even with the scrupulous attention to balance in Adams’ conducting, the compelling transparency of the music’s sonorities had to wait for equally scrupulous attention to a mixing board to register with the attentive listener. Through this recording that listener can appreciate how much more there is to this music than obstreperous fortissimo intrusions upon delicate textures, making this an excellent document of the “signal” that Adams really wanted us to hear.
That same subtlety in Adams’ sense of humor also arises in “Absolute Jest.” By the time this music was recorded in concert in 2013, Adams had revised the original score performed in 2012; and this may have had much to do with just how much detail would register with listeners in Davies, particularly since the score involved a much larger ensemble. The work is an extended (25 minutes) scherzo for string quartet and full orchestra based primarily on fragments appropriated from Ludwig van Beethoven, particularly his scherzo movements. Adams apparently once called this the “longest scherzo movement for orchestra;” and it certainly exceeds the duration of Gustav Mahler’s longest scherzo movement.
In his notes for the booklet of this new recording, Adams made the following cautionary observation:
String-quartet-plus-orchestra is a risky proposition, The high-strung intensity of the quartet can be lost amid the sprawling mass of the orchestra. (It’s no surprise that the medium is pretty much a repertory black hole.)
Well, the hole is not entirely black. The most important precedent during the twentieth century was Schoenberg’s “Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra” in B-flat major. However, this was basically a rethinking of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 325 concerto grosso (the seventh from his Opus 6 collection of twelve, the one concerto grosso in the set that does not have specific solo parts). Thus, Schoenberg came up with his own model of interplay between solo and ensemble voices with striking (and sometimes humorous) results.
(Note that there is a “Schoenberg connection” to both of the compositions on this recording. I have previously suggested that these are far from the only ones. I have begun to wonder just how many times Schoenberg’s ghost appears when one is listening to Adams music!)
Of course the idea of a few string soloists performing with a larger ensemble prevails across the Baroque concerto grosso repertoire. These involve solo-strings-plus-ensemble-strings; but the entire group is much smaller. Schoenberg used rich twentieth-century instrumentation to get away from uniformity of sonority; and he succeeded impressively. Adams preferred to let the quartet dwell on most of the references to Beethoven while the ensemble ran amok through the scherzo rhetoric, an equally successful gambit. Nevertheless, that gambit paid off far more successfully as a result of skillful mixing of the recording sources than it did in the vast expanse of the Davies space, negotiated in this case by SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium.
However, whatever the auditory virtues of the recording may be, I wish that SFS Media had shown a bit more recognition of the soloists. They were the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet: violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza; and their names appear in the smallest font in the entire booklet! Considering that their role in “Absolute Jest” is as strong as that of the pianists in “Grand Pianola Music” (if not more so), those four musicians deserve a bit more respect.