Road Trip, Part Two: John Adams Meets Beethoven, and vice-versa.

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

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Pulling out of Paso Robles on US 101, it was an unseasonably hot early May day, in the 90s at least.  But the further north I drove, the faster the temperature dropped – and a fine, cooling fog was rolling into San Francisco by the time I reached the city limits. The city is lucky to have such powerful air-conditioning – and it’s free.

The following afternoon (May 5), it was off to Davies Symphony Hall to check out for myself the current parallel recording paths of Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony – one devoted to Beethoven, the other to a cluster of composers from then and now who fall under the umbrella of American Mavericks. On this day, these paths converged on one program as part of the SFS’s Beethoven Project –  John Adams going on a spree with fragments of Beethoven symphonies and string quartets, surrounded by rare Beethoven on one end (the tiny, solemn Three Equali for four trombones (!) and the pioneering song cycle An die ferne Geliebte with tenor Michael Fabiano and pianist John Churchwell),  and the Symphony No. 4 on the other.

Written for symphony orchestra and string quartet , the Adams piece is called Absolute Jest – and while the composer writes that he meant the word “jest” in the sense of its Latin meaning “gesta” (“doings, deeds, exploits”), I think the issue swings both ways. For all of his serious intentions about transformation and invention, Absolute Jest is mainly a helluva lot of fun to listen to, and if you know your Beethoven, you’ll find it hard to suppress a delighted laugh at some of the drop-in quotes and manic energy .  Furthermore, MTT calls it “a big scherzo” – which literally means “joke” or, if you will, “jest “– and he contributed to our fun and understanding by having the St. Lawrence String Quartet play the real passages from Beethoven’s Op. 131 and Op. 135 quartets as a brief refresher course before the performance.

Yet this marvelously inventive “scherzo” apparently had a rough birth. Since its premiere at last spring’s American Mavericks festival, Adams completely rewrote the first two-fifths of the piece, about 10 minutes and 20 seconds worth, changing the meter from 4/4 to a driving 6/8 derived from the first movement of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony and the scherzo of the Ninth.  I wasn’t in town to hear the original version, but I could sense that the piece changes character entirely at the 10:20 mark; the 6/8 feeling disappears as Op. 131 takes hold.  There is also a very prominent new quote from the scherzo of the Fourth Symphony in the rewrite – and I wondered which came first, programming the Fourth Symphony as a companion piece or slipping in the quote (when I asked him backstage, Adams said it was the latter).

However, the Adams personality is everywhere in this Beethoven homage – a dreamy section spiked by chimes at about the 16 minute mark,  signature Adams ostinatos combining with Op. 135 for a ripping good run toward the end, trilling brasses jeering at the Grosse Fuge.  The St. Lawrence Quartet was balanced quite deftly against the orchestra (some reports from last year claimed it was a jumble then), and Tilson Thomas conducted carefully but with plenty of zest. SFS Media’s microphones were there to record it for release, reportedly as a free-standing, hi-def digital download first.

The Fourth Symphony was due to be recorded as well but alas, MTT could not continue after intermission due to a twisted shoulder that had been bothering him since the previous night (not to worry, there were other performances scheduled).  So Donato Cabrera, the SFS Resident Conductor and leader of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, stepped in on a few minutes notice to lead the Fourth – and he did an excellent job, vigorously-paced, with a wide dynamic range and feeling for suspense, getting absolutely unified, beautiful playing from an orchestra that didn’t bat a eye at the fast tempos.


Postscript: By sheer coincidence, a new SFS Media CD of Mahler’s First with Cabrera and the SFSYO awaited in my mailbox when I arrived home. Live from the Berlin Philharmonie last summer, Cabrera was able to get his young players to take some chances, particularly with his wide tempo fluctuations in the finale’s lyrical Blumine reminiscence. With apologies to Melky Cabrera of the Giants, there is another Cabrera making a big noise in San Francisco these days.