ACM presents an admirable evening of Adams

Tue Feb 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

ACM presented an evening of John Adams’ music Monday night at Ganz Hall.

One of Chicago’s most consistently adventurous ensembles, Access Contemporary Music (ACM) presented a program devoted to John Adams Monday night at Ganz Hall. The event marked the composer’s 65th birthday on Wednesday, and drew an impressive and noticeably young crowd on a cold winter’s night.

All three works presented are large chamber works, calling for 11 to 15 players enough to require a conductor, Francesco Milioto.

Adams’ Scratchband led things off. Wholly characteristic in its populist style, the 12-minute piece calls for electric guitar and synthesizer as well as traditional winds. Scratchband makes a kind of satiric, at times surreal, jam session. Milioto led a worthy performance that would have benefited from greater rhythmic intensity and energy.

Adams’ Chamber Symphony (No. 1) was famously inspired by the composer studying Schoenberg’s work of the same name while his seven-year-old son watched cartoons in the background. That when-worlds-collide sensibility infuses the Chamber Symphony.

This is a tortuously complex piece making punishing demands on all 15 players. Despite somewhat metrical direction, Milioto elicited fine transparency and clear-cut rhythms in the opening section, “Mongrel Airs,” with kudos to the antic loopy winds.  Dafydd Bevil lofted a lovely horn solo in the central movement “Aria with Walking Bass,” the players conveying the somewhat pensive and elegiac expression. The closing, “Roadrunner” would have been more effective at a faster, cracking tempo, but the performance put across the shifting rhythms and off-kilter humor effectively with fine obbligato violin solos by Jeff Yang.

Clarinetist Steve Cohen was the solo protagonist  in the closing work, Gnarly Buttons, a  clarinet concerto in all but name. The work has a personal resonance since the clarinet is Adams’ own instrument as well as that of his father, and honors his father’s musician days as well as his slow disintegration due to Alzheimers’ disease. Cohen was a superb soloist bringing out the jocular jazzy elements as well as the melancholy and nostalgia, playing with full tone, easy bravura and mellow expression.

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