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John Adams - Son of Chamber Symphony / String Quartet

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Artist: John Adams

Album: Son of Chamber Symphony / String Quartet

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Aug. 31, 2011

John Adams - "Son of Chamber Symphony: III"

Two new works, two distinct genres, two different approaches to musical space and time, two diverse approaches to titling.

It is highly unusual in classical music to claim one piece has direct genetic lineage from another. The cannon is riddled with works that derive on, quote from, comment upon, steal from, evoke, and recontextualize other works, but you almost never hear of a piece having a familiar relationship to another. Son of Chamber Symphony (2007) is, as its name implies, the offspring of Adams’ 1992 Chamber Symphony, which is itself the grandchild of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1906 Chamber Symphony. What does it mean, then, to be the son of another work? Pieces by the same composer are already assumed to have similar DNA, similar sense of logic, similar approaches to musical material. But Adams chooses to make that connection explicit, and that linkage informs the way the two works are heard. It is impossible to listen to one work without comparing it to the other.

Adams’ chamber symphonies have the same general structure: three movements, with frenetic, fast-paced outer movements flanking an ostensibly slower, more lyrical middle movement. Both pieces are built around layered pulses and subdivisions. Chamber Symphony tends to think in bigger units, focusing more on the “symphony” of the title than the “chamber,” which is to say that Adams tends to treat instruments as parts of sections playing the same kinds of rhythms. Whereas Son of gives the individual voices much more freedom within both the rhythmic and melodic grids. Chamber is relentless, with a monomaniacal focus on packing as much rhythmic density into its three movements as possible; its finale, “Roadrunner,” could give you whiplash if you’re not careful. Its harmonic bend is just as malevolent, operating in a chromatic space that values jagged intervals and dissonant runs over major and minor chords. Son of tempers some of its father’s more extreme tendencies, mixing in bits of lyricism straight out of Stravinsky (in certain rhythmic flourishes in the first movement), Bernstein (West Side Story could be the godfather of the main melody of the first movement), Ravel (in the endless melodies of the middle movement) or Glass (in the overall harmonic sensibility of the finale). Not to mention that Adams rediscovers triads and tonality, occasionally invoking the bulging late-Romantic harmonic language of Schoenberg’s chamber symphony. The question I can’t seem to answer, though, is how much labeling the piece a “son” brings these references to the fore. Would the work have more autonomy if it were Chamber Symphony No. 2? Or if it were given the title of the Mark Morris dance for which it was commissioned, Joyride? Or, does the unconventional playfulness of the title allow us to hear the work as slipping in and out of its genre?

The second work on this disc takes a much more sober approach to its title: It is, simply, String Quartet. By sticking with the genre as title, the work is immediately put in dialog with the 250-year history of the form. It seems to hew much closer to post-minimalist doctrine, with near-constant jittery motion. The oscillations underlying everything (and, at times, forming the melody) hearken back to a misremembered, modernized version of Haydn or Beethoven, and much of the quartet seems content to skip most of the 20th century. There are flashes of Berg and Ravel on one end, and Ligeti, Carter, and Shostakovich on the other, but almost nothing from the truly gnarly quartet music from the middle of the century (and, surprisingly, very little Bartok). But then Adams has always favored the more luscious side of things, so this should be no surprise. This piece is content to just be a string quartet, and it gladly owns all the implications of the genre.

By Dan Ruccia

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