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“Splitting Adams” = John ADAMS: Chamber Symphony; Son of Chamber Symphony – Alarm Will Sound/Alan Pierson – Cantaloupe Music

“Splitting Adams” = John ADAMS: Chamber Symphony; Son of Chamber Symphony – Alarm Will Sound/Alan Pierson – Cantaloupe Music CA21128 (4/21/17) 76:29 ****:

Wonderfully refreshing look at the music of this iconic composer.

First, I am almost positive I have all of John Adams’ works that have been recorded as well as some scores and have been a huge fan since hearing his “breakout” work, Harmonium, with the San Francisco Symphony nearly forty years ago. I personally believe that Adams and his music will ‘survive’ the test of time through performance as well as through the critical filter of American music history to be seen as one of our most important composers these past four decades and beyond.

Adams’ music is alternately beautiful, captivating and melodious and, then; thorny, complex and occasionally disconcerting. People who think they can immediately identify one of John’s works have either listened to a lot of it or—not.

This is why this “podcast album” of both of Adams’ chamber symphonies is so refreshing and valuable. The performances of both of these important works by the always splendid and innovative Alarm Will Sound are amazing, of course. The real bonus here is the extended commentary and discussion tracks with John Adams, AWS director Alan Pierson and members of the ensemble.

In the first case, we learn—or recall—that the Chamber Symphony is a great example of what I consider the ‘stream of consciousness’ Adams. This work is a paean to the music of Arnold Schoenberg and its rhythmic and tonal vibrancy and complexity. It is also an example of the ‘cheeky’ Adams (who does have a good sense of humor by all accounts) in its channeling of cartoon music (as in the third movement, “Roadrunner”)

The sublimely titled Son of Chamber Symphony is a followup work written for Alarm Will Sound after John Adams heard the group play the Chamber Symphony. The discussion reminds us that it is, in a way, an homage to the sights and sounds of 30’s horror movies. The group also comments that this work, too, is incredibly difficult (most of his pieces are!) This is a work that has also had a life as a ballet piece, choreographed by the San Francisco Ballet in 2008. Those who genuinely know Adams’ music will hear semblances of of his clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons as well as the iconic “News” aria from Adams’ opera Nixon in China. Perhaps, most importantly, Adams himself tells us that this work conntains many intervallic and motivic references to another of the composer’s heroes, Beethoven.

It is important to know—and hear—the ‘Beethovenian’ genetics in some of John’s earliest works; most notably the choral masterpiece Harmonium and the somewhat irreverant Grand Pianola Music. The biggest difference between Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony is what violist Nadia Sirota points out as true and inescapable beauty.

The conversation/commentary tracks on this album are priceless and prove valuable for years to come. In addition to the very valuable and occasionally humorous dialogue among the composer, conductor and players, we get some inserted excerpts from the other works (of Adams, Schoenberg, Beethoven) being referenced which helps a great deal. We also get a sense of the personality of the composer and these superb musicians who clearly have a great sense of humor and are probably fun to be around. (I laughed out loud at the sound bite from Mel Brook’s movie “Young Frankenstein” in which the late, great Gene Wilder cries out “It’s aliiiiiive!”)

Certainly these are not the premiere or even only recordings of these works out there. Adams himself conducted and recorded the Chamber Symphony with the London Sinfonietta and ‘Son of..’ with the International Contemporary Ensemble. However, these present performances are outstanding and when you add in the very valuable and entertaining discussion tracks, I think this is the recording to have. In fact, I believe this very album would make an ideal first exposure to John Adams and his music. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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