It may be premature to speak of a dynasty, but another, younger Adams has entered the serious composer lists in the past few years. Son of John Coolidge Adams, Berkeley’s leading musical luminary of the moment, Samuel Carl Adams (the middle name avoids confusion with a popular commercial brew) has survived the baptism of his first violin concerto, commissioned by his hometown orchestra and given its first public hearing last week, in the presence of his adoring father and an attentive crowd.
Much of the 30-minute piece, which happily embraces tonality, ravishes the ear. At 28, Adams knows much about orchestral textures and the emotive possibilities of solo string writing (his school instrument was the double bass) and he conjures myriad moods over the work’s four movements with ease. In a series of cadenzas and solo flights, the violinist leaps wide intervals, and posits lyrical material without achieving that antagonistic relationship with the orchestra that defines the western notion of the concerto. Recapitulations provide reliable signposts.
Adams admits his doubts about the traditional form in a programme note, but even if the work sounds more like a rhapsody, from the unwinding string melody that launches the piece, it nevertheless holds the listener’s attention. So deft is the orchestration that a single piano chord in the first movement and a drummer striking a pop riff in the second somehow rearrange the sonic landscape. The impeccable violinist Anthony Marwood, for whom the piece was written, confers on the third movement such intensity at such a wide range of dynamics that he seems to breathe with the players. One feels an organic relationship here, despite a decrease of tension in the final moments. And, to forestall queries, this often magical score sounds nothing like the compositions of Adams père.
Although a part-time subscription orchestra, the Berkeley Symphony, under its maestra, Joana Carneiro, laid down a rich sonic carpet for the concerto, adroitly balancing Marwood’s effusions with the ensemble. Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” suite, a work that suggests a past that never existed, seemed a good match with a concerto in name only but the team paid a price for its attention to Adams in its soggy, poorly tuned reading of Stravinsky’s neo-classic diversion. A robust account of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 set matters straight.