A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

John Adams LSO Discovery Day, The Barbican, 07/03/10

I was at the Barbican for most of Sunday to immerse myself into the world of one of one of greatest living composers, John Adams.

The first part of the day was an open rehearsal by the London Symphony Orchestra for the evening concert featuring 'Four Sea Interludes' by Britten, 'Symphony No. 6' by Sibelius and the European premiere of John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic Symphony'. I caught the final part of the Britten rehearsal and all of the Sibelius. It was interesting to see Adams directly address and instruct the orchestra.

The rehearsal was followed by a Q & A session involving David Alberman and John Adams. It was an enjoyable discussion and interesting to hear John Adams talk about the creation of the symphony, how he composes, exotic musical modes/scales, the role of developing technology in modern composition, the extent to which he writes for himself/his audience and his views on Sibelius’ Symphony No. 6 (which he thought “had an aspect of clinical depression” and “had a dark cloud hovering above it").

He also talked briefly about his piece ‘On The Transmigration Of Souls’, the commission he received from the New York Philharmonic to write a piece for the victims of the World Trade Center attack. He also talked a little on the subject of film soundtracks (he doesn’t do them anymore due to the lack of control over where/how these are used in films). He did mention however that pieces of his music do feature in a film due to be released later this year called ‘I Am Love’ (which I had read about in the Curzon Cinema guide yesterday incidentally). An enormously likeable and intelligent man.

Next was a performance of Adams’ ‘Shaker Loops’ by members of the LSO at St. Luke’s. It was my first visit to St. Luke’s and I liked it – a decommissioned church that has been restored as a performance/rehearsal space. We were told a little about how ‘Shaker Loops’ was inspired by the American landscape as seen from a moving vehicle. The time it was written in 1978 coincided with his exposure to other minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley.

I thought it was a brilliant piece of string-based chamber-minimalism, featuring subtle rises and falls in pace. It had a distinct linear feel to it which re-emphasised the association with the idea of a journey. This was the first time I was hearing it and it reminded me of modern classical composers such as Max Richter (although chronologically I guess it should be that Max Richter reminds me of John Adams, but nevermind). I found myself being drawn in and thought it far more accessible than I had imagined.

The next part of the Discovery Day involved travelling to the Barbican Cinema 3, located in the outer-echelons of the sprawling Barbican complex to see ‘Wonders Are Many: The Making Of Doctor Atomic’ a film about the creation of Adams’ opera. It was a great, funny film, almost just as much a history of the creation of the atomic bomb as a film about how Adams and Peter Sellars created the opera.
The evening concert was the final event of the day. Britten's 'Four Sea Interludes' from his opera 'Peter Grimes' was the first piece played and ranged from sad and moving to lively and dramatic. On previous listens Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 had not left as much of an impression as his other late period symphonies (4, 5 & 7 to be precise). However, tonight’s performance was different. I heard things in the live performance that I had not heard previously, especially the emergence of melodic motifs and the glacial strings of the 4th movement. There were moments of sadness but I didn't really see enough to make me agree with Adams' earlier comments on the symphony.

I have always found John Adams music to be infused with drama and excitement, huge swathes of high-energy orchestral sound interspersed with moments of calm and beauty. The 'Doctor Atomic Symphony' followed a similar theme, stormy passages being succeded by episodes of quiet reflection. The trumpet solo towards the end was beautifully played but not as prominent as that featured in one of my favourite pieces 'Quiet City' by Aaron Copland.
All in all, the event was a great example of what an arts organisations should aspire to – to inform, educate, inspire, excite and challenge.

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