CD Reviews: John Adams’s musical jokes

Nov 06, 2015
John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music. San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, John Adams, cond. (SFS Media)
By Tom Huizenga and Patrick Rucker November 6, 2015
San Francisco Symphony, SFS Media

Sooner or later, almost every composer grapples with Beethoven. From Brahms, who felt the “footsteps of a giant” haunting him, to contemporary artists like John Adams, the spirit of the great composer looms.

A new San Francisco Symphony album features two of Adams’s Beethoven obsessions spaced nearly 30 years apart. “Grand Pianola Music,” from 1982, and “Absolute Jest,” from 2013, offer sly, at times outrageous, nods to Beethoven.

Both also prove that Adams’s sense of humor is intact and that classical music in the 21st century can be an awful lot of fun.

From its ominous opening strains to its ramshackle final bars, “Absolute Jest,” scored for the unlikely combination of string quartet and orchestra, is a funhouse stocked with flashes of Beethoven. Jolts from the Ninth and Fourth Symphonies pop up suddenly, and there is a particular fixation with the late string quartets.

These musical “tattoos,” as Adams calls them, get stretched, squashed and piled high.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco players in a performance with the vibrant St. Lawrence String Quartet cranked up loud in the mix. It is not weighty music — rather, as its title suggests, a giant scherzo sparkling with imagination and wit.

Beethoven’s presence in “Grand Pianola Music” is more subtle, diluted with additional references.

In a 1999 essay, Adams called the piece a “Whitmanesque yawp” in which “Beethoven and Rachmaninoff soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives and John Philip Sousa.” The rolling arpeggios in the “Emperor” Piano Concerto are the most prominent tattoos.

The piece might also be something of a breakthrough. Adams starts with textbook minimalism — pulsating winds and a trio of soaring female voices — but soon transforms it with wide open chords and a newfound lyricism that would become his hallmark.

The grandiose finale, with its sweeping melody (enter Liberace) and torrents of opulent arpeggios, climaxes in radiant joy.

Adams conducts the San Francisco players in a performance that is more nuanced than his earlier 1993 recording, but arguably less punchy.

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