MusicNOW closes season with an arrivederci and Adams (not that one)

Wed Mar 17, 2010 at 8:41 am

By Bryant Manning

Ironically, the forward-looking MusicNOW series sounded its final notes of the season with a whiff of nostalgia on Monday night.

CSO President Deborah Rutter was on hand to formally thank the two CSO Mead Composers-in-Residence—Osvaldo Golijov and Mark-Anthony Turnage– who have played such an important role in this series over the last four years. Younger composers Mason Bates and Anna Clyne replace them this fall when the Muti era begins, and as Rutter wistfully announced, it was now time to fondly say “arrivederci.”

While Golijov figured prominently on Monday night’s concert at the Harris Theater, it was a night to become acquainted with John Luther Adams. The 57-year-old Alaskan composer, who was in attendance, enjoys an almost mythical status, suggesting a soft-spoken ascetic working in a tiny cabin outside Fairbanks. It’s been 35 years since Adams left the continental 48 to come to a place he describes where “the forces of nature are unusually volatile.”

The concert opened forebodingly with the thundering Qilyaun (which translates as “instrument of power”), a gradually intensifying piece written for four bass drums. The work features two drums on stage with two more in the back of the theater near the exits. This hair-raising music created a pounding stampede of sound, as if unsuspecting indigenous people were rudely awoken by twin helicopters swirling overhead.

Adams’ other two works were less effective. For Jim (rising), written for his mentor, the late composer James Tenney, is a brass piece for three trumpets and trombones and conducted here by Fulcrum Point artistic director Stephen Burns. The music is valedictory, characterized by the bold flair of a horn ensemble but through comically messy scoring. Despite a strong performance, the music did little to leave a lasting impression.

Adams’ …and bells remembered… for five percussionists certainly buttressed his personal mission of “not wanting to tell a story.” The slow, quiet tolling of orchestra bells that answer a bowed vibraphone and chimes seemed pleasant to the point of nothingness. The vast, splendid arctic soundscapes of Adams will be easier heard when Jaap van Zweden conducts his magnificent Dark Waves with the CSO in October.

As CSO programming advisor Gerard McBurney requested beforehand, there would be no applause (or boos) between works. Golijov clarified this by saying it would allow the six different works to function as “a large mass without religion.”  Briskly paced, this proved to be an effective approach as Adams’s more abstract pieces alternated nicely with the more melodic and diatonic worlds of Michael Ward-Bergmann and Golijov.

Ward-Bergemann’s sonorous hyper-accordion sung resonantly over a string quartet, as arranged here by Golijov, in the cinematic score of Patagonia. Clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom produced a similar lyricism on klezmer clarinet in Golijov’s K’vakarat, from The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. The slightly intoxicated, late-night personality of this music is also imbued with the sadness that Golijov seems to craft so well.

Closing the program was his Tekyah, with various CSO brass members barking through a shofar. Written for the BBC to commemorate the 60 year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the music was freshly unsentimental if at times gimmicky.

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