Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Adams @ Barbican, London

28 January 2007

On the Transmigration of Souls was John Adams’s choral and orchestral response to the New York tragedy of 9/11.

Some claim it to be among the composer’s masterpieces, and it is certainly an ambitious work, with a pre-recorded audio track blending voices and sounds of the city alongside the live musicians.

However, played out of its context the comfortable setting of the Barbican concert hall is a world away from the grieving New York of 2002, where this piece was premiered we lose the emotional tug.

The disjointed texts, encompassing everything from names of the dead to testimonies from relatives to the final words of the flight attendant on AA #11, are put on minimalist loops on the amplifier or given to the choir in any number of stylistic guises. The London Symphony Chorus sang with great conviction, whether caressing the floated calls of Remember or blasting the ecstatic cries of Light! Light! up to the top tier. The New London Children’s Choir were less disciplined, with pitches frequently splayed all around the required one. But then their writing is very difficult and the contrast of timbres that they brought was exactly right.

Orchestrally too, this was hard to fault, with Adams encouraging a shiveringly luminous sound from the first violins and a floated opulence in the London Symphony Orchestra‘s delicate accompaniments. And the brief orchestral passages were snappy and exciting; replete with textural details and judged with great oversight. Fatally though, it was hard to feel moved whether because of the setting, or because of those ridiculously intrusive television screens placed either side of the stage and all one could do was appreciate the composition; not feel it.

Leila Josefowicz, on the other hand, felt every bar of The Dharma at Big Sur, Adams’s brilliantly sustained sort-of-concerto for amplified violin and orchestra. The technique was breathtaking: the classical training was there, but Josefowicz immersed herself in this unorthodox style and found a complete freedom with the bow. Every line was drawn from the instrument with astonishing ease, with a glorious lack of inhibitions and with such bodily and facial contortions as to suggest that her figure was an extension of the instrument.

Sadly, the problem was the instrument which, when placed next to such transparent textures from the LSO, sounded muffled, constricted and unnatural. With the amplification, its lower regions could almost have been those of an electric guitar, while top notes struggled to find any colouring, warmth or projection. Josefowicz’s electric stage presence and sackload of skills did compensate, but only just.

And first up was Slonimsky’s Earbox, which warmed from a mechanical and very loud opening (with woodwind all over the place and pizzicato violins not together) and ended with ostinato rhythms pushing forward and complex counterpoint disorientating and thrilling the senses (although percussion could have been quieter at times). If anything, it was the highlight of the evening.

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