Paavo Järvi conducts John Adams

It is becoming increasingly evident that everything Paavo Järvi touches turns to sonic gold

Paavo Järvi conducts John Adams

It is becoming increasingly evident that everything Paavo Järvi touches turns to sonic gold, be it the Complete Symphonies of Franz Schmidt from Frankfurt, Tchaikovsky Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4 from Zürich (do give No. 2, the “Little Russian” a go if you don’t know it) or a group of Estonian Premieres with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. He turns his attention, now, to the music of John Adams and is by some way the most persuasive advocate of Adams’ music I have heard.

Dedicated to the conductor and Adams devotee Kent Nagano, Slonimsky‘s Earbox (1995) was dual-commissioned by both Hallé Orchestra and the Oregon Symphony (on paper an unlikely pairing!). The premiere took place in Manchester, in September 1996 in the Bridgwater Hall; the American premiere took place the next year under James de Priest, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Adams himself suggests the work is a raprochement between Minimalism and the more contrapuntal approach of pieces after the opera The Death of Klinghofer.

Although musically influenced by both the explosive opening of Stravinsky's tone poem Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), and that piece's use of modal scales, the title comes from the writer Nicholas Slonimsky (1894-1995), who in 1947 compiled a Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. According to Adams,

[Slonimsky's] autobiography, “Perfect Pitch”, stands alongside Berlioz’s memoirs as one of the few genuinely original literary works about music.

Adams goes on to say:

The “Slonimsky” in my title not only memorializes his wit and hyper-energetic activity, but it also acknowledged my great debt to his thesaurus, whose scales and resulting harmonies have had a singular impact on my music since the Chamber Symphony of 1992. “Earbox” might be a word worthy of Slonimsky himself, a coiner who never tired of minting his own.

We hear Minimalism pronouncedly later in the work 9around 11 minutes in) followed by distinctly Stravinskian violin gestures that themselves go on auto-repeat. to contribute to this Minimalist milieu; and surely the final aggregation and dismissive gesture is Adam's homage to the end of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps?

Here's Slonimsky’s Earbox:

...  and here (click this link), so you can compare openings, is an (unspecified) performance of Stravinsky’s Le Chant du Rossignol. I quote this one as it gives the score for you to follow, should you wish - so  you can actually see that opening gesture notated on the page (the use of music notation is a fascinating seperate subject in itself)

... and here (click this link) is the utterly remarkable Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philarmonic in the “Sacrificial Dance” from Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Warning - this one is exhausting to listen to such is the voltage Bernstein gets from his players!

The orchestral triptych My Father knew Charles Ives (premiered in San Francisco, 2013). The title of the work reflects an imagined direct link between Adams and Ives, in that John Adams’ father actually had not known Charlies Ives! Adams has said:

Like Ives, I grew up in rural New England, in Woodstock, Vermont and East Concord, New Hampshire. The young Charlie Ives received his first musical training from his bandmaster father, George Edward Ives. My first lessons on the clarinet were with my father, and together we played in marching bands during the summers and in community orchestras during the winter months. I grew up listening to both classical and popular music with little prejudice toward the one at the expense of the other. Although it was surely from my singing actress mother that I inherited most of my talent, my father's patient and analytic approach to teaching gave me the security of a sound musicianship.
My father, like Ives, was drawn to the contemplative philosophy of the New England trancendentalists, particularly Thoreau, whose modesty, economy and fierce independence he admired, even when he could not always emulate it. Both fathers seem to have shared a certain dreaminess that expressed itself in speculating about art and, in the case of Carl Adams, took the form of several failed attempts to establish himself as a painter after an some [sic] earlier experience playing jazz clarinet and saxophone.

The title, Adams has said, might have been  influenced by Morton Feldman’s I met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg.

The place that gives the first movement its title, “Concord,” is in New Hampshire, but is the name is identical, of course, to that of Concord, Massachusetts. Adams’ musical signature i present and correct, but there is no missing the Ivesian riot in this piece!:

You might like to compare with this, “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut” the second of Ives’ Three Places in New England. Click here for a positively rampant performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

The second movement, “The Lake,” is beautifully still and, therefore, reflective (sorry). But bad puns aside, actually it is reflective in the psychological sense, as it is a portrait of a place near Mount Washington where Ives’ parents met. The music glistens, like sunlight off water:

The music that opens the finale, “The Mountain” is unutterably still, over which a trumpet sings. "The Mountain" refers to Mount Kearsarge, Mount Shasta, and the Sierra Nevada mountains of the West Coast:

Järvi’s performance of the finale rises to white-knuckle climaxes; the sheer intensity around seven minutes in is awe-inspiring

A good Naxos alternative, incidentally, for My Father knew Charles Ives is by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under Giancarlo Guerrero. Firstly, it is a fine performance (I do prefer Järvi in the final instance, though) but also because the Naxos is coupled with Adams’ iconic Harmonielehre. I have put both Amazon and Spotify links below, so you can check it out, and you can find Classical Explorer’s original post on Guerrero’s disc here.

The title of the next piece, Tromba Lontana, means “Distant Trumpet”. Written in 1986, this is a fanfare commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico. Two spatially-separated trumpets dialogue over a quiet, Minimalist background (the quetude is the inverse of what one naturally expects from a fanfare). If you listen carefully, there are three layers: the trumpets, the serene Minimalism of the wind and percussion and, almost unnoticed, a long melody in strings. Maybe try playing it three times and each time, put your attention on each of the three different strands! (so, trumpets; wind/percussion; string melody).  Järvi’s Zürich players are impeccably precise, yet remain atmospheric:

Finally, Lollapalooza, written in 1995 for (now Sir) Simon Rattle’s 40th birthday. Ratt;e premiered it with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchesra. Here’s what Adams has to say about it:

The term "lollapalooza" has an uncertain etymology, and just that vagueness may account for its popularity as an archetypical American word. It suggests something large, outlandish, oversized, not unduly refined. H.L. Mencken suggests it may have originally meant a knockout punch in a boxing match. I was attracted to it because of its internal rhythm: da-da-da-DAAH-da. Hence, in my piece, the word is spelled out in the trombones and tubas, C-C-C-E♭-C (emphasis on the E♭) as a kind of idée fixe. The "lollapalooza" motive is only one of a profusion of other motives, all appearing and evolving in a repetitive chain of events that moves this dancing behemoth along until it ends in a final shout by the horns and trombones and a terminal thwack on timpani and bass drum.

This crowd-pleasing extravaganza is perfect to close the disc, and I have to say Paavo Järvi persuades me of its validity far more than did the Pittsburgh Symphony under Manfred Honeck at he Proms in 2017. Järvi has bite, but he also understands the cumulative way to work with the insistance of the “lolapalooza” rhythms:

Paavo Järvi is the first conductor to convince me of the worth of Adams’ music (and I have tried many operas and orchestral pieces in other conductors’ hands). Adams’ music can really touch the heart. As a sign-off, perhaps this: Adams’ setting of John Donne’s astonishing sonnet Batter my Heart, from the opera Doctor Atomic. If you follow the link, Gerald Finley sings (who impressed so much in Covent Garden’s continuing run of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (review), as Wolfram von Eschenbach), with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.