City Noir: Marin Alsop conducts John Adams

Adams' music scintillates and glittes undr Alsop

City Noir: Marin Alsop conducts John Adams

John Adams’ City Noir was inspired by the cultural and social history of Los Angeles, with the composer himself calling it ‘an imaginary film score’, while Fearful Symmetries exemplifies his steamroller motor rhythms. The album ends with a capricious ‘Spider Dance’ of memorable rhythmic drive – a work dedicated to Marin Alsop who leads the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in these performances. Recording to be promoted concurrently with Marin Alsop's MET debut.

The music of John Adams needs exactly the bright brio Marin Alsop commands. Inspired by the city of Los Angeles, both its cultural and social history, City Noir is an imagined film score (perhaps in the tradition, therefore, of another composer-inhabitant of LA, one Arnold Schoenberg and his Op. 34, the Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspeilszene (Accoompanimental Music to a Film Scene). One would have thought Shoenberg and Adams would be chalk and cheese, but the darkness of Adams' vision aligns closely with Schoenberg (and one should not forget Adams wrote a famous piece, Harmonielehre).

Adams' music does not always succeed, but this does, and Marin Alsop and her Vienna forces (the ORF - Austrian Radio Orchestra). The drive of the first movement is remarkable, underpinned by palpable restlessness. Adams has said that the piece is inspired by

... the dark, eerie chiaroscuro of the Hollywood films that have come to define the period sensibility for us

... and how true that seems. The first movement, “The City and its Double” (complete with jazz drummer) bursts at the seams; the second balances it out as Nachtmusik (“This Song is for You”):

In an acknowledged influence by the composer, the finale, “Boulevard Night,” references Jerry Goldsmith's score to Chinatown. Adams' music is an Ivesian cacophony, though, and all the more exciting for it. Alsop marshals her focus brilliantly. There are surely reminiscences of Stravinsky's Rite her win the insistent repetitions of small blocks. Its quite a ride:

There is a performance of this given by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic - that conductor's inaugural concert, at which City Noir was coupled with Mahler's First Symphony - on DG DVD, but on Amazon it is cripplingly expensive (£94!) but do search out on auction sites where it seems to be cheaper.

The half-hour Fearful Symmetries takes us back to 1988 in Adams' output and a purer, perhaps more steamroller type of Minimalism ...

... and here's an alternative Alsop performance, with the NDR Elbphilharomnie Orchestra:

The title is taken from Blake's The Tyger (click this link for the full poem):

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The score is vibrant, full of effective juxtapositions. It needs just the sort of performance Alsop and her Vienna forces provide, clean, shot through with energy.

Finally, a relatively new piece: from is opera Girls of the Golden West (2016), “Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance,” heard in its 2020 revision. This is fascinating in ts twisty melodic material, its virtuoso demands on the orchestra (Alsop achieves such a tight performance). This is a scintillating performance that makes this sound like Adams at his moms brilliant (unfortunately I can imagine this piece in a lesser performance sounding too disjunct). Here is Alsop and the ORF Vienna Orchestra:

One of Naxos' finest releases: the ORF orchestra glitters under Alsop's baton, and the recording (made in the Musikverein) is absolutely top-notch.

This disc is available via Amazon here.

John Adams: City Noir, Fearful Symmetries & Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to John Adams: City Noir, Fearful Symmetries & Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance by Marin Alsop, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, John Adams. Stream now on IDAGIO