Wallfisch Saves N.C. Symphony’s John Adams “Portrait”


Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh – March 25, 2011: The North Carolina Symphony gave one of its most creative and informative concerts Friday night, a “Composer Portrait” of John Adams.

Music director Grant Llewellyn was particularly keen to helm this concert, but had to remain in Wales during his wife’s unexpected surgery. The search for a substitute familiar with Adams’ complex, multilayered works ended happily with Benjamin Wallfisch, whose supreme confidence Friday belied his last minute arrival.

For audience members not fully aware of Adams’ style, the program cleverly prefaced Adams’ works with pieces by composers who influenced him. This had the added benefit of showing how Adams’ so-called “minimalist” elements were actually present in much earlier composers’ works.

In the little-known “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” Beethoven set two Goethe poems depicting the eerie quiet of a windless ocean followed by suddenly boisterous gales that can set a ship asail. The N. C. Master Chorale, augmented with the East Carolina University Chamber Singers, produced ethereal mystery and joyful outcry for this short piece, echoed later on a grander scale in Adams’ “Harmonium.” This thirty-five minute work sets one poem by John Donne and two by Emily Dickinson, but concentrates less on expressing individual lines and more on characterizing each poem’s mood. The first movement depicts the nature of love as constantly restless; the second offers death as a slow-moving procession; the third paints erotic ecstasy as wildly exuberant. Adams demands close attention to all his slightly changing details in what otherwise might seem static or repetitive passages.

Wallfisch impressed with precise control of dynamics and pace, the orchestra reconfirmed its fearless command of contemporary fare, and the chorus demonstrated director Alfred E. Sturgis’ rigorous attention to difficult the rhythmic shifts. Although the singers’ loudest passages needed weightier texture, the softest sections had an appropriately otherworldly tone.

Guest pianist Christopher Taylor applied his prodigious talents to Britten’s “Young Apollo,” a fanfare-like work pitting the piano against a solo string quartet and the orchestra’s string section. Taylor’s intense playing of the repeated runs and rising chords buoyed the piece along vigorously. In contrast, but with similar elements, Adams’ “Eros Piano” had a relaxed, almost improvisatory feel, conjuring Debussy and Gershwin, with Taylor emphasizing the lush, moonlit mood.

The great innovator Charles Ives was represented by “The Unanswered Question,” which layers droning strings, soulful solo trumpet and chattering flutes, representing the quest for the meaning of existance. Adams takes similar layering techniques to an exhilarating extreme in ” A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” Ablaze with seven percussionists, the orchestra filled the hall with the work’s brilliant colors, rewarded by the evening’s loudest applause.

It was gratifying to find the hall well-filled and the audience so responsive. If all the orchestra’s programs were similarly planned and executed, it would be hard to imagine anything but sellouts.

[a version of this review appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on March 27, 2011]