In revealing the music they like, composers often tell us a lot about themselves. The American composer John Adams has just spent 10 days in the UK giving a short series of concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring works by 20th-century masters Bartók and Debussy, and a final programme that showed Adams to be the complete American at heart.
As the climax of this last concert, he conducted the first UK performance of his most recent orchestral work, Absolute Jest. Composed in 2010, it pays tribute to a very different composer – did we know before how much Adams admires Beethoven? – and also renews his connection with the St Lawrence String Quartet to create a concerto for string quartet and orchestra.
Before that came three contrasting American pieces. Ives’s Country Band March is a riotous collage of popular American music. Copland’s folk-inspired Appalachian Spring paints a simple landscape of country life. Carter’s Variations for Orchestra probe deep into intellectual complexities. Adams is not the most elegant conductor in the world and his performances sometimes felt four-square, but sheer energy kept them bowling along.
The same was certainly true of Absolute Jest. Once the music gets up to full speed, it is like a sports car on an open highway, accelerator down to the floor, wind in the hair – nothing can stop it. The quotes from Beethoven that Adams has chosen are all fast, rhythmic, motoric ideas, as if he wants to reach back in time and embrace the great classicist as founding father of the American minimalists. The problem is that Beethoven used these highly charged motifs to construct entire movements driven forwards by his inexorable logic. Here, torn from their larger context, they lose their sense of purpose. On first hearing, at least, Absolute Jest is a jumble of ideas, swept along on a wave of energy.
The novelty of a concerto for string quartet has also proved difficult to bring off in practice. Even with discreet amplification, the St Lawrence String Quartet disappeared into an orchestra that dazzles with its cowbells, xylophone, glockenspiel and chimes. On several counts Absolute Jest does not work, but it is hard to call it a failure, when Adams’s exuberance remains as infectious as ever.