JOHN ADAMS: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music – St. Lawrence String Quartet (Jest)/ Orli Shaham & Marc-Andre Hamelin, pianos/ Synergy trio, vocals/ San Francisco Sym./ Michael Tilson Thomas/John Adams (Pianola) – SFS Media multichannel 821936-0063-2, 57:34 [Distr. by Naxos] (8/14/15) *****:
An old work and a new one from America’s most-performed living composer, who started out as a strong minimalist and now is much less so. Both were written especially for MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. And both are performed live in the excellent 5.0 hi-res surround (96/24 for the first work and 192/24 for the second) provided by the SF Symphony on its fine series of SACDs.
Absolute Jest was inspired by Adams’ listening to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Instead of working with snippets of Pergolesi, Adams used various bits from a couple of Beethoven’s string quartets, plus a bit of his Seventh Symphony. It has been revised since its 2012 debut, when it was commissioned by the Symphony to celebrate its centennial. There aren’t many works pegging a string quartet against a symphony orchestra, so Absolute Jest is a welcome contribution.
Adams himself conducts the second and much older work, his Grand Pianola Music, which also has tongue-in-cheek allisions to the Emperor Concerto of Beethoven. The two-piano-based work is most enjoyable and the vocal parts are my favorite types of vocal parts – wordless voices. It also has a humorous bent, a quintessentially American blend of brass band marches, gospel piano and gaudy Revivalist anthems. The San Francisco Symphony began featuring their orchestral music in coast to coast concerts on the radio in 1926, and I was once archivist of this collection of historic recordings. Now the Symphony has a multimedia program to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, including the Keeping Score series we have reviewed here before (and this is just the latest one).