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John Adams’ City Noir, which he describes as the score for an imaginary Hollywood film, is an odd work for a composer who famously refuses to write scores for Hollywood films. By his own account, he’s been approached by directors including Francis Ford Coppola, even expressed interest, but ultimately decided studios’ turnaround demands would leave him no time to write his own stuff. So it’s the imaginary part, it seems, that makes it palatable to Adams, particularly the appeal of not having to answer to things like a director or screenplay: “One of the great things about film noirs is the music. The problem with the music is that it gets cut off,” he remarked before leading the National Symphony Orchestra in his meandering 2009 symphony that probably could have benefited from some editing.
America’s great classical chronicler is in town wrapping up an Adams fest that began last week with a series of chamber concerts organized by the Library of Congress and concludes this weekend at the Kennedy Center. In terms of intimacy, this program can’t top his electric performance with the magnificent International Contemporary Ensemble at the LOC last Friday, which he led in his Son of Chamber Symphony. But in contrast to his crank-it-to-11 approach with ICE, with the NSO he displays more nuance as a conductor.
Tempering some of Adams’ boisterous inclinations is pianist-blogger Jeremy Denk, who performs Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. The two are a suitable match, given their shared affections for Charles Ives (Denk has done an album of Ives’ sonatas; Adams has described his childhood as “very Ivesian,” by which he probably means growing up in New England, not selling insurance) and pontificating in blog form (Adams on shopping in Georgetown; Denk on huevos rancheros and Richard Wagner’s silk panty fetish). But here, the two evoke a different bard of Americana, Gershwin, who both Ravel and Adams gleefully ripped off in the two featured works.
It’s Ravel’s concerto that especially shines, with Denk tiptoeing playfully but carefully around phrases as the orchestra swirls around him. It’s the quicker first and third movements that are meant to show off the pianist’s skill, though the third is more an exercise in concentration amid fanfare and whip cracks, and the drama of the first rests largely on trills that can make a simple piece sound busier than it is, like the drumming in a Blink-182 song. It’s the more languid second movement, the adagio, in which Denk beautifully draws out Ravel’s bright colors, balanced nicely by Adams and a reduced orchestra.
Adams’ symphony follows in Ravel’s footsteps by infusing jazz into classical composition. An old trick, but Adams has an excuse: The whole thing is an anachronism, or rather an homage to classic film noir and the mythical L.A. of the Kiss Me Deadly era. City Noir rounds out a triptych of Adams’ California-themed compositions, including El Dorado and The Dharma at Big Sur. It mirrors Ravel’s traditional fast-slow-fast concerto form, though unlike Ravel, drags most in the middle with an interminable horn line. As a still new and demanding piece, it hasn’t been performed much; its premiere was high-profile (unveiled at Gustavo Dudamel’s 2009 debut as the Los Angeles Philharmonic director) but wasn’t actually very good. So the NSO can be congratulated for tackling it better than the L.A. Phil, though a piece that relies so heavily on brass was maybe not the best choice; perhaps no one told Adams it’s the NSO’s weakest section. Most of the heavy lifting is done by soloist Timothy McAllister on soprano sax, who so impressed Adams as the only saxophonist who could play his symphony that he’s writing a concerto for McAllister premiering in Sydney this September.
Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the program opener, served as Adams’ warmup, which he led hesitantly at first before settling into a sauntering cadence. Adams clearly enjoyed conducting, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and while he had trouble at times keeping the strings from being drowned out, he otherwise showed a nice ear for dynamics and Respighi’s placid landscapes evoked by the woodwinds. Like City Noir, Fountains of Rome is part of a geographically themed triptych which includes Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals; its inclusion could signal Adams’ aspiration that his California compositions will reach the popularity of Respighi’s Roman trilogy. But what unites the program as a whole is a surprising degree of harmony for three pieces written after 1900. If anyone could draw a crowd to the Kennedy Center with an evening of 20th and 21st century music, it’s Adams, but even he knows to keep things pleasing to the ear.
The program continues Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85.