A palpable air of expectation hung over the Barbican Hall at the start of this concert of twentieth and twenty-first century music.The sizeable mid-week audience not only came to see John Adams conduct, but also to hear his latest orchestral offering.City Noir had its world premiere in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel last October, but this was its first European outing.
The 25-minute, three-movement symphony is a terrific work. Listening to and watching it being played and conducted by the composer was a bit like driving through a total-surround 3-D movie. Indeed, the Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s and early 1950s were a key source of inspiration.
This was Adams at his most expansive and symphonic although the hallmark minimalist rhythmic patterns were still discernable throughout. Every part of the vast orchestra which included a drum kit and an array of gongs was imaginatively brought into the mix. Thematically, the work moved from punchy insistence in the opening ‘The City and its Double’, through slinky bluesiness in the central ‘The Song is for You’ (with a superb melody for solo trombone) to the thrilling chaos of the final ‘Boulevard Night’.
It was a canny move to place City Noir at the end of the programme, despite it short duration. But the first half also included a number of eyebrow raisers. The first of these was two of Debussy’s Prludes, orchestrated by Colin Matthews. Evoking varying moods of the wind, ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ and ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ inevitably invite comparisons with La Mer. Matthews’ orchestration certainly hinted at this, but neither movement sounded like Debussy or even Matthews, but rather something in between. Overall, the orchestration was overstretched and unsuited to piano works that were never intended to be played on anything other than a solo keyboard.
Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales was also disappointing, not because of the quality of playing the eight movements were skilfully and deftly worked through by the LSO but because of the slight nature of the work. A sweet but inconsequential ballet, Valses lacks the bite of the Ravel’s later La Valse or the emotional depth of Ma Mre L’Oye. Indeed, the Valses sounded best during its more eccentric and ironic moments.
Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments was much more fun. Soloist Jeremy Denk was fascinating to watch, banging away at the keyboard during the mechanical allegri of the first and third movements. His technical precision brought to mind the Baroque harpsichordist, working with and against the jazzy timbres of the excellent LSO wind players. The central Largo, meanwhile, provided an island of calm and reflection, recalling the tender moments of a Bach partita.