Violin Concerto – John Adams
Leila Josefowicz, violin
St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor
Some recordings become touchstones in one’s collection. Despite there being several fine renditions out there, the 1996 Nonesuch CD of Gidon Kremer playing John Adams’ Violin Concerto (1993), with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Kent Nagano, is an abiding favorite of mine. Now, more than twenty years later, Nonesuch has bested its own best with the release of Leila Josefowicz’s recording of the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson.
Josefowicz is front and center in the mix. Since the violinist plays nearly constantly in the piece, and tends to evoke the actions of the orchestra more so than one finds in traditional concertos, this seems entirely appropriate. Her rendition of the piece is filled with crisply fluent runs and fluid dynamic shifts. The first movement is appropriately dramatic in cast, the second takes on a poignancy that is most affecting, and the finale is truly a bravura showcase for the soloist. In addition to the vibrant energy of Josefowicz, under Robertson the St. Louis Orchestra gives a performance that is both dynamically potent and attentive to detail.
While repetition remains an important component of Adams’ music, the Violin Concerto is a watershed piece for the composer in that breaks out of the boundaries of post-minimalism into a more versatile gestural language than he had previously used. In addition to this change in rhythmic practice, the concerto features greater chromaticism than one had previously heard in pieces by the composer. He fluently wends his way through a variety of key centers – there are even moments where post-tonality reigns supreme over triadic writing. These facets of his writing have only blossomed in the ensuing years. However, it is pleasing to be reminded of their roots in the concerto, particularly by such a persuasive account of the piece.
This is the label’s thirtieth CD of music by Adams; their connection to the composer dates back to the 1986 recording of Harmonielehre. On June 29th, 2018, Nonesuch will release yet another recording of music by Adams, and a particularly noteworthy one: the premiere CDs of his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic. More about that soon.
Out today on Nonesuch is John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, a concerto for violin and orchestra of symphonic proportions. Composed for soloist Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson, it also features Chester Englander as a “shadow soloist” playing cimbalom.
The program is, deliberately one suspects, somewhat veiled, but uncannily timed. It deals with the disempowered status of women, a given in the original Arabian Nights, and how they regain their voice and, ultimately, a sense of sanctuary from persecution. This is a theme that remains sadly relevant to current events, both abroad in far too many countries (and for far too many exiles and refugees) and in the United States’ disarrayed electoral politics.
Josefowicz plays marvelously, with a bravura demeanor that displays the courage of the title “character” and abundant virtuosity to boot. Robertson conducts St. Louis in a compelling and multifaceted performance, etching the details of the piece’s vivid orchestration and, while never overbalancing the soloists, bringing tremendous power to bear. When Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993) premiered, it was a watershed work for his compositional language, signaling a shift to a broader palette of harmonic and historic reference points. It appears quite possible that this is another pivotal piece in the composer’s catalogue.
On Monday, July 21st at 8 PM, the last concert of Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music is a well-stocked program of orchestral works. The centerpiece is Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work commissioned by the BSO thirty years ago. Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing will feature as soloist Sarah Silver, one of Tanglewood’s New Fromm Players. Music by John Adams has not in recent memory frequently been featured on FCM programs, but this year his Slonimsky’s Earbox makes an appearance. The sole work by a younger composer, The Sound of Stillness by Charlotte Bray, piqued my interest – it is an impressive piece. (Check out a video about it here.) Thus, this year’s FCM ends the way that many of its seasons are curated: with nods to tradition as well as explorations of new, unfamiliar, and underrepresented corners of contemporary repertoire.
Pianist Orli Shaham’s new CD, American Grace, spotlights music by John Adams and Steven Mackey. Its centerpiece is a concerto written for Shaham by Mackey, Stumble to Grace, featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor David Robertson. It also includes a barnstorming performance of Adams’s Hallelujah Junction performed by Shaham and Jon Kimura Parker – check out a “making of” video below. On Monday, March 3rd, Shaham and friends celebrate the release of the recording with performances and a CD signing.
March 3, 2014
7:30 pm (doors open at 6:30 pm)
Pianist Orli Shaham and friends
SubCulture New York
45 Bleecker St, Downstairs
New York, NY 10012
(212) 533 – 5470
Tickets: $20 advance, $25 at the door, $35 includes CD
Full disclosure: Caroline Shaw has played my music, so I make no claim to objectivity here.
The day after Paul Moravec won the Pulitzer prize, John Adams started shooting from the hip about the Pulitzer going to “academic composers.” I was annoyed. But I figured, “Okay, he’s being a jerk, but Paul is an established composer writing quality material: He doesn’t need Adams’s permission to be successful.”
Recently, however, Adams has been sniping at younger composers. Yesterday in the NY Times, he took a thinly veiled swipe at Caroline. I know that she doesn’t really need JCA’s permission to be successful either. However, it really ticks me off that Adams is willing to burn the bridge behind him.
So let’s break the cycle of composers eating their young. Emerging and just-emerged composers: remember to pay it forward and to not get crotchety before your time.