December 14, 2010 6:19 pm

John Adams/San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

‘Home Boy’ returns to rule the roost

Although the career of Bay Area resident composer John Adams and the history of the San Francisco Symphony have been interwoven for more than three decades, the orchestra has featured this “home boy” little in recent seasons. So, the thrilling two-week Adams festival this month provided a retrospective of a quarter-century of creativity and a preview: the composer promises a world premiere for the orchestra’s centenary next year.

Adams manned the podium for a tender reading of the nativity oratorio, “El Niño”, in the hall that witnessed the American premiere in 2001. The nettlesome Peter Sellars film has yielded to a simple staging by Kevin Newbury; the sweet fervour of the writing, set to biblical texts and Latin American verse, has lost little potency over the decade. Soprano Dawn Upshaw reprised her original assignment to inspired ends, joined by mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung, baritone Jonathan Lemalu and a host of choristers. What Adams’ leadership missed in pinpoint precision it made up in thrust and conviction.

 
John Adams
 John Adams now partakes of a great musical tradition

Throughout the fortnight, one observed the winding path taken by an ex-minimalist who has devoted 30 years to resisting labels. Even in the early and formative “Shaker Loops”, given in its original septet form under Adams’ command, the material seems prepared to leave formula and precept behind. What seems certain is the manner in which a generation of younger musicians has set new technical standards in this repertoire. None of the dozen “Shaker Loops” performances experienced over the years rivalled these San Francisco players.

That judgment was affirmed on a grand scale when music director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted (and recorded) ‘Harmonielehre’, introduced by this orchestra in 1985. That premiere was an exploratory affair, a series of discrete events. This month’s incandescent reading charted a narrative through the pounding chord sequences and shimmering lyrical passages, so that it all seemed like a quest to find an individual language incorporating past and present.

A closing chamber concert offered the delectable two-piano ‘Hallelujah Junction’, its neo-Impressionist textures and jazzy excursions savoured by Robin Sutherland and Keisuke Nakagoshi. To conclude, the 2008 String Quartet, with its jagged lines and deceptive cadences, received an almost inebriated reading from the St Lawrence String Quartet. It left no doubt that Adams now partakes of a great musical tradition. (

4 star rating
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