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Composers are rarely their own best interpreters, but I still thrill to the sight of John Adams conjuring from an orchestra the symphonic soundscape he first drew on a blank sheet. And when that soundscape is The Dharma at Big Sur, the thrill is multiplied.
Written for the opening of Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, Dharma is different from anything in western classical music because it projects an electric violin above a “normal” orchestra of shimmering strings, golden chimes and syncopated throbs. The recording by the original soloist, Tracy Silverman, had prepared me for its seductive slides, climbing to a state of trance-like ecstasy, but it was still a shock to behold Leila Josefowicz, in a hippy-style outfit, walking on with an unvarnished wooden board under her arm. Then to hear what sounds that skeletal stringed instrument made, once it had been plugged in...
The music of Dharma exists between the notes, in a world of expressivity. Eventually the soloist must deliver a series of wild paroxysms – nervous mini-crescendos that lead to the ejaculatory busting-point. The packed audience was mesmerised. The piece says so much about California, its musical history and state of mind, while bending itself to the disciplines of classical tradition.
Part of the fun was seeing Josefowicz enter vividly into the spirit. And the composer was on a high, too – unlike the LSO, which didn’t seem to understand the psychedelic idiom.
Slonimsky’s Earbox – mimimalism-meets-Stravinsky – needed sharper rhythmic focus. As for On the Transmigration of Souls, Adams’s requiem for 9/11, the performance was ruined by poor sound reproduction and the distraction of giant screens. What has happened to the LSO’s presentational skills? ★★★★☆
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