While we are waiting for John Adams’s latest work, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be bringing to the UK in March, there is time to take stock. Adams himself is in town, conducting three concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra that combine his own music with that of composers he admires.
The last of the concerts, on Sunday, will feature the first UK performance of Adams’s Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra. That is a novel combination (though the new biography of Benjamin Britten tells us that he wanted to try his hand at it, but never found the time) and it was appropriate that this second concert in the series laid the groundwork for it.
Adams introduced each piece himself, setting up an easy rapport with his laid-back, Californian outlook. Like Brahms, he threw away many works in his early years, but he says Brahms’s discards were probably better. One of the earliest scores to have escaped the waste-paper bin is Shaker Loops from the 1970s. This shows how Adams evolved from the gene pool of minimalism, though it is also more than that. Originally intended for a string quartet, it has four individually minded parts and, however flat the horizontal picture in the harmony, the four parts spark ideas up and down. In the manner of the American “shaker” sect, the music ends in a frenzy, excitingly played here by the LSO String Orchestra.
Adams’s String Quartet, written in 2008, starts from the same point, but minimalism is now only the base from which to set out on more interesting adventures. The long first movement travels far and wide. Out of the pulsating rhythmic activity at ground level come slow violin lines floating high in the air, reminiscent of Debussy’s String Quartet. Sometimes there are impressionist splashes of colour in the harmonies, too. The matching second movement is less varied in its language, but the shakers seem to have been paid another visit, as the music again works itself up to fever pitch. The piece was written for the St Lawrence String Quartet, who were brilliant to hear, exhausting to watch. They will also be playing Absolute Jest with the LSO on Sunday.