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Composer John Adams led the musicians in Beethoven, Stravinsky, and his own "Absolute Jest," a wonderful new work by a composer at the top of his game.

Concert Review: John Adams with the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale and the Brentano String Quartet at Avery Fisher Hall, NYC 10/19/2014

Composer John Adams, photo by Margaretta Mitchell
Composer John Adams, photo by Margaretta Mitchell
Composer John Adams‘s “Absolute Jest” riffs on Beethoven, particularly the scherzos of his glorious late quartets. In last night’s “Yale in New York” performance at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall by the Yale Philharmonia and the Brentano String Quartet conducted by Adams, Beethoven spoke through Adams’s fitful, inventive piece sometimes with a wink, sometimes with a good-natured shove. The orchestra and chamber ensemble flowed remarkably smoothly together. With Stravinsky also on the program as well as Beethoven himself, this top-rank student orchestra did all three composers proud.

After a helpful introduction in which the quartet played some of the Beethoven strains Adams uses in his piece, which premiered back in 2012, “Absolute Jest” began with ghostly calls from harp and bells, before building into a rhythmic fiesta. The most straightforward Beethoven quote came towards the end of the 23-minute work and derived from Beethoven’s final string quartet, the F Major Opus 145. My sense, though, is that one would need only a glancing familiarity with Beethoven and classical music in general to appreciate and enjoy “Absolute Jest” – maybe even as much as Adams appeared to love conducting it (and must have enjoyed writing it).

“My first idea was just to make it an orchestra piece,” the composer said in an interview, “but the Beethoven music is so fast and so virtuosic, and it lives on this speed-of-light, laser-pinpoint precision plane, that just the mass of the symphony orchestra can’t possibly travel at that hyperspace rate. So I got the idea of incorporating string quartet.” The Brentano performed brilliantly in the role. The rare configuration of orchestra fronted by string quartet seemed to provide the ideal setting for Adams’s ideas as he constructed what he refers to only half-jokingly as “the world’s longest scherzo.”

The composer uses repetition borrowed from minimalism, artfully painted atmospherics from harp, piano and bells, and brilliantly structured development formed around the interplay of orchestra and string quartet to create a celebratory energy in the piece, and he drew this energy throughout from the clearly enthusiastic musicians.

That glowing mood persisted after the intermission into Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which in this telling had a colorful flow, Adams’s slight rubatos working especially effectively in the gorgeous second movement. The third movement, the Scherzo – conceptually most related to “Absolute Jest” – had plenty of brio, though with a touch of rhythmic muddiness now and then. The finale was a model of clarity and a thrilling race carried by bravura sixteenth-note work from the strings especially. Perhaps they were inspired by the “laser-pinpoint precision” displayed by the Brentano. In any case, all in all I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed Beethoven’s Fourth more.

“Absolute Jest” had a conceptual connection with the program’s opening piece too, though a tenuous one. Adams explained that he was inspired to write it by hearing how Stravinsky borrowed from Pergolesi for “Pulcinella.” Paying tribute to this progenitor, Adams opened the concert with Stravinsky’s “Orpheus,” which he interpreted with the requisite imagistic force and the same exquisite feel for sonic balance he brought to his own work and the Beethoven. Yet the Stravinsky had a subdued and even hesitant quality. Unlike the “Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky’s “Orpheus” seems to lose something significant when detached from the ballet.

To me, most memorable from it – probably because most beautiful – was the evocation of Orpheus and his lyre by the gentle scales from harpist Noel Wan, and the simultaneous development. But in spite of these beautiful passages and the fine execution of the music overall, the performance lacked the panache of “Absolute Jest” and the grandeur of the Beethoven, which combined to make the concert so fulfilling.

“Absolute Jest” is a wonderful new work by a distinguished composer and conductor at the top of his game.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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