John Adams conducts for chamber group

05.11.10
Jeremy Denk
The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

After keeping polite company with Beethoven, Schubert and Debussy all season, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society turned edgier Sunday afternoon, hosting composer John Adams conducting a group assembled under the moniker Ensemble ACJW.

Adams led three breathtakingly original works in the Perelman Theater - his own Son of Chamber Symphony from 2007, Stravinsky's 1924 Concerto for Piano and Winds, and Louis Andriessen's De Staat, premiered in 1976.

The Adams work is the least confrontational of the three - the one whose basic sound is so familiar it seems to have been distilled from contemporary ambient noise. It's a busy, sometimes jazzy score, challenging every available ounce of concentration from the young musicians (fellows from a collaborative project called simply the Academy - a program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the New York City Department of Education).

Adams often asks a player to be a pointillist, counting rests carefully until contributing one note in a continuing line. The second movement is music that worries a bit, if prettily, with an oboe solo over a celesta-pizzicato string texture. The third rolls on with the inevitability of a speeding train.

You're struck by the possibility that Adams writes with the neat, precise packaging of electronic instruments in his head; the fact that he scores for acoustic instruments heightens the sense of daring. These musicians had no trouble keeping up the illusion.

Pianist Jeremy Denk was the stylish soloist in the Stravinsky. You could imagine a pianist of lesser rhythmic acuity being so preoccupied with the basics as to miss this piece's expressive possibilities. Denk missed nothing, shaping the Bach-influenced passages and setting off Poulenc-sweet neo-classicism against more acerbic music. He was unusually sensitive to the orchestra, playing into the sound of instruments he doubled.

What was so astonishing about Andriessen's De Staat (The Republic) wasn't its mass of sound - overwhelming as it was in the Perelman - but that it seems, after 35 years, so completely up to date. The influences are Reich, Stravinsky, Indian raga, and of course, Plato, whose text is incanted by four female vocalists. Patterns restate and evolve - and rather than becoming rote, the slow sense of shifting becomes the source of a pleasurable, consuming hypnotism.