John Adams may or may not be the greatest living composer, but he is at least one of a very select bunch.
The Barbican’s celebration of his compositions has been worthwhile, and the culmination was Thursday evening’s concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The problem is, for all the brilliance of his works, John Adams is much less successful with a baton in hand.
When the music demands a no-holds-barred approach, Adams can lose momentum; when the score thrills for the ingenuity of the scoring, Adams can choose a poor balance between instruments.
The opener on Thursday, Short Ride in a Fast Machine prides itself on drilling its incessant ostinati firmly into the cranium, yet in this reading, no forward propulsion was evident until around the midway point. And good orchestral playing notably the tuba and the trumpets could not disguise the lack of magic present, caused by too little textural diversity.
Similarly, in Adams’ Violin Concerto, the hazy Mozartian glow of the first movement was gone, while the violin was consumed by overly energetic double basses and timpani in the Toccare. The solo playing of Midori was also mixed I liked her stupendous control, tight vibrato, security of tone and expressive delivery; I disliked that her head was buried in the score throughout, that her bow crackled on the strings too often and that colouring could become squeaking when the dynamic was raised.
After the interval, the performance leapt up a gear. Nave and Sentimental Music is one of the composer’s most beloved works, with its plethora of helter-skelter rhythms and one of the most tear-jerking, transcendental slow movements to have been composed over the past 50 years. It was not all plain sailing however smudged violin tones (worse than I’ve heard from the orchestra in a while), uncertain trumpets and much Herculean flexing of the triceps from the conductor did not bode well. But then Adams somehow blustered to a thrilling climax to the first movement, and his confidence grew.
The warmth found in the central movement was uncanny, with horns immensely secure and violins finding a lustrous quality as they sailed high above. The solo guitarist stopped his Led Zeppelin posturing from the previous movement and phrased superbly; a couple of poorly pitched instrumental solos and one moment of choppy conducting were quickly brushed aside. Then the climactic third movement was simply that climactic. The double basses ignited a flame that spread through the orchestra, though Adams held back the dynamic until the last possible moment, giving its glorious release an extra shaft of light with which to penetrate the hall.
The evening was not redeemed completely, but whether the warm final applause was for Adams the conductor or Adams the composer, I think that he deserved it one way or the other.