JOHN ADAMS: The Dharma at Big Sur; My Father Knew Charles Ives – BBC Sym. Orch./ John Adams /with Tracy Silverman, electric violin – Nonesuch (2 CDs)

JOHN ADAMS: The Dharma at Big Sur; My Father Knew Charles Ives – BBC Sym. Orch./ John Adams /with Tracy Silverman, electric violin – Nonesuch 2-CD disc set 79857-2, 52:00 (9/26/06) ****:

John Adams at his best with an East Coast and West Coast-themed musical offering.

This is not a new disc, as it was released in 2006. But it is an important disc from one of the world’s greatest living composers, John Adams.

This two disc set offers The Dharma at Big Sur, which comprises the 2003 title piece by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer John Adams, as well as My Father Knew Charles Ives, also from 2003. Both pieces are performed by London’s BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the composer.

The first piece, The Dharma at Big Sur is a musical offering reflecting on Adams’ move from the East to the West coast of America. Says the composer: “I immediately began searching my mind for an image, either verbal or pictorial, that could summon up the feelings of being an emigrant to the Pacific Coast—as I am, and as are so many who’ve made the journey here, both physically and spiritually. Coming upon the California coast, the Western shelf drops off violently, often from dizzying heights, as it does at Big Sur, the stretch of coastal precipice midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara.”

Writing about the work on the second disc Adams says: “My Father Knew Charles Ives is musical autobiography, an homage and encomium to a composer whose influence on me has been huge. Here are three more “places” in New England. My “Concord,” however, is Concord, New Hampshire, 80 miles to the north of the Concord of Ives’s epic piano sonata. And my “Mountain” must also include the beloved West Coast Sierras of my adult life. “The Lake” is a summer nocturne. Over the gently lapping sounds of the water distant lights glimmer and mosquitoes hover. Far across the water the distant sound of a dance band floats off the dance hall pavilion, the Winnipesaukee Gardens. It was here that my father, playing clarinet in a visiting swing band, met my mother in the summer of 1935. I still have a picture of him sitting with the band, Ed Murphy’s Orchestra, wearing white shoes and holding his clarinet in a relaxed pose.”

This music is Adams at his best, and most accessible. The music is lovely and evocative at times, and driving and rhythmic as the pieces progress. The BBC Symphony seems right at home with these works, and the electric violin playing by Tracy Silverman is a wonder.

The puzzling things about this release is why there are two discs. There’s a total of 52 minutes with the playing times added together, and both compositions could easily fit on a standard CD. Certainly, the extra disc adds to the cost, and I can think of no other benefit.

Audio-wise the disc is fine, but not exceptional. I would have preferred a high resolution release, rather than just the standard CD, but Nonesuch only offers a CD and an MP3 download. Pity. The recording seems to have been done a bit more distantly than I would like, blurring the soundstage. Balance between the electric violin and the orchestra at times seems a bit off, but as Adams is conducting he probably got what he wanted.

I generally like  John Adams, and these are two stand out works. With both of these compositions at about 26 minutes each, I hated to get up and change discs to hear everything in one sitting. Highly recommended for Adams fans and contemporary music followers!

—Mel Martin

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