JOHN ADAMS: Son of Chamber Symphony; String Quartet – International Contemporary Ensemble/John Adams/ St. Lawrence String Quartet – Nonesuch 523014, 54:00 *****:
It’s always a pleasurable challenge to review a disc of new compositions by John Adams, arguably the greatest living American composer of our time. Son of Chamber Symphony refers to Adams’ previous 1992 composition, Chamber Symphony. In his clever and witty program notes, he says that what attracts him to the medium of the chamber symphony is the chance to highlight solo instruments in the context of a larger orchestral sonority. Adams was originally inspired by Schoenberg’s Op. 9 Chamber Symphony, with “its explosive energy and staggering, acrobatic virtuosity of its instrumental writing.” He wrote Son of Chamber Symphony knowing that it would be choreographed by Mark Morris, a previous collaborator, who created dances for his operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghofer. The work was appropriately entitled, Joyride. I saw it danced by the San Francisco Ballet a couple of years ago. Eight dancers, wearing tight Spandex body suits adorned with LED digital readouts of random numbers attached to his/her chests, engaged each other in randomly complex patterns. It reflected the rhythmic complexity of this work, but, as Adams notes, misses the great humor embedded in the DNA of this vibrant composition.
Son of Chamber Symphony starts slowly, but changes into short bursts of constantly changing rhythmic cells that are mechanistic in their precision but engage the listener in a series of freely expressed musical high jinks, as if his minimalistic musical roots just downed a bottle of 5-hour Energy. It’s brilliantly orchestrated, and includes a “keyboard sampler playing samples of a prepared piano, the ‘boing’ of which sets the tone for the first movement.” The lyrical second movement begins with a beautiful passage for flute and clarinet over strumming strings and ends with galloping staccato chords that vie for attention with the transformed lyrical opening. The third movement is a manic high energy dance on steroids – a hallucinatory joyride. This is a magnificent addition to the Adams’ discography that will win him new fans. The performance and recording are exemplary, a real feast for the ears and your stereo system.
The String Quartet (2008) follows his only other work for string quartet, John’s Book of Alleged Dances. It’s one of the few works that Adams did not name, claiming his admiration for the genre (“the epitome of the union of musical form and content”) being the reason. The lengthy first movement is sectional but works as a whole. The anxiety ridden first section contrasts long lyrical lines with pulsating rhythmical sequences, another nod to Adams’ minimalistic beginnings. A contemplative section relieves the energy, followed by a jagged scherzo, ending in relative quietude. The shorter second movement uses staccatos and a Morse code figuration to create an agitated atmosphere that borders on the manically irritable. The St. Lawrence String Quartet’s energetic persona is a perfect choice for this challenging work.
For Adams lovers, this disc is a mandatory purchase. Newcomers to him will find this disc a stimulating introduction to his music.
— Robert Moon