Two composers celebrate in sound the cities that fascinate them. Ottorino Respighi wrote Feste romane, his evocation of Rome, all of 85 years ago. John Adams completed City Noir, his tribute to Los Angeles, in 2009. Both bring to mind film associations. So what’s the difference?
Visitors to Monday’s Prom could be forgiven for drawing a blank. It brought together the 65-year-old American composer and the Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, in a repeat of last week’s concert in New York, about which Martin Bernheimer reported in these pages. But the context had changed. The Royal Albert Hall has more space to fill and, yes, American music sounds “different” this side of the pond.
It is always useful to hear a composer conduct, whether their own music or others’. Even if the performances are less than immaculate, as here, a composer brings authenticity: we are hearing sounds the way a creator hears them. But the juxtaposition of Respighi’s piece and his own did Adams no favours. Both composers are long on orchestration and short on sustainable musical ideas, and both create a blowsy atmosphere without leading anywhere.
In City Noir Adams throws everything at the orchestra in terms of riffs and roulades, handing out obbligato parts to all and sundry, and creating a hubbub of highly consumable noise. To what effect? It’s as if the leading American composer has bought into his own celebrity and capitulated to conservatism – a depressing thought, given his trend-setting younger self.
We needed to hear Adams championing music about which he really has something to say, preferably American, instead of watching him beat time until Respighi’s next eruption. Like City Noir, Feste romane needed more heat and intensity – and Ravel’s G major concerto, the savoury filling in the programmatic sandwich, needed a less plodding tempo. Imogen Cooper gave a characteristically polite performance, classically refined in the Adagio but placid in the outer movements, where a dollop of flamboyance is required.