Spectacular Adams Grand Pianola Music with LA Phil and Dudamel

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel recording John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music at the Hollywood Bowl soundstage. © Courtesy of LA Phil

Watching the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel have a ball with John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music (1982) on their latest Sound/Stage stream, I found myself falling madly in love with the surreal score all over again.

Written between the ecstatic symphonic statements of Harmonium (1981) and Harmonielehre (1985), Grand Pianola Music comes off as a Haydnesque burst of dexterous musical comedy, conceived in witty sonic canvases of nostalgia and flamboyance. Still, that is not tot say that Adams’s music actually sounds anything like Haydn.

Rather, Grand Pianola Music inhabits a musical universe akin to the buoyant counterpoint of those seminal minimalist scores of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, alongside Adams’s own Common Tones in Simple Time (1979-80/1986). However, in addition to its minimalism-induced trajectory, Adams throws in diverse musical gestures from cooing sirens to Valhalla brass, giving rise to the side-splitting sonic imagery of Grand Pianola Music.

Scored for two pianos, winds, brass, percussion and three voices, Grand Pianola Music originates in the composer’s dream of a freeway scene, with two passing limousines transformed into grand pianos. The thirty-minute score is cast in three main sections, an extended opening movement, itself divided into fast and slow sub-sections, and followed by an over-the-top finale.

Grand Pianola Music opens with rippling pulsations from the two pianos and upper winds, joined by long-held bassoon lines, bowed vibraphones and horns. In the course of some two hundred bars, the orchestral fabric builds to a quasi-impressionistic tableau, with some big-band undercurrents, built around the minimalist ground pulse.

On bar 202, two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano join, with their scatty siren-calls providing some splendid colour. Relatively well-mannered thus far, the music takes a grandiose turn on bar 278, as the two pianos plunge into cascading fortissimo scalar figures, accompanied by brass and punctuated by crotales, triangle and tambourine.

Poking fun at itself, the music keeps shifting gear, building up to unhindered fff bursts from the full ensemble. Yet, in the midst of its massed sonorities, new ambiguities prevail, as the opening movement cools down to its slow second section. Hovering between sincere and dead-pan, the essence of the music is again harder to pin down.

Fading into the mists, the opening movement exits the stage, paving the way for the tongue-in-cheek finale. Following a 100-or-so-bar introduction for full ensemble, piano 1 finally introduces the main theme; a sweepingly grand, and not a little banal musical gesture, accompanied by piano 2 arpeggios and low-reed-pedal points.

However, despite of its banality, the theme is transformed into tremendously engaging musical vista. As a listener, one cannot help being swept away by the over-the-top sonorities and teasingly straightforward harmonic progressions. Both rousingly tactile and tremendously witty, the movement’s conclusion is a disarming feat, in the manner of a Marx Brothers comedy.

John Adams photographed by © Vern Evans

The LA Phil and Dudamel performance is nothing short of spectacular. The pianists Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicky Ray are ever flawlessly interlocked, providing the listener with a powerhouse performance of virtuosity, wit and terrific energy.

The LA Phil winds and brass shine with colour and nuance. Be it those soaring bassoon lines or spiky muted trumpet pulsations, not to mention the rippling upper winds, gorgeous horn parts or the deep vales of the low reeds and brass. The percussion section navigates through Adams’s score with hoisted colours, from luminous mallet textures to glistening metallic sonorities and earth-shaking bass drum thuds.

The three voices, sopranos Elissa Johnston and Holly Sedillos and mezzo-soprano Kristen Toedtman appear as a spellbinging trio, delivering enthralling vocal fantasies, perfectly woven into the instrumental fabric.

With Dudamel on the podium, Grand Pianola Music comes off immaculately balanced and beautifully paced. A nuanced performance with nothing held back, the LA Phil take on Grand Pianola Music ranks among the finest programmes in the entire Sound/Stage series so far.

Accompanied by Deborah O’Grady’s beautiful visuals, Grand Pianola Music is joined by astonishing portraits of nature; woods, fields and flocks of birds, juxtaposed with wind farms. With aligned visual and aural gestures, the music and the images enhance each other marvellously. As O’Grady compellingly demonstrates, minimalist-tinged music is not inevitably tied to those seemingly endless, lukewarm reiterations of Koyaanisqatsi. Instead, her imagery appears as sincere and organic, powerfully contributing to the overall experience.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Joanne Pearce Martinand Vicky Ra, pianos

Elissa Johnston and Holly Sedillos, soprano

Kristen Toedtman, mezzo-soprano

Deborah O’Grady, visuals

John Adams: Grand Pianola Music (1982)

Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl Soundstage, Los Angeles

First released on LA Phil Sound/Stage on Friday 16 April 2021

© Jari Kallio

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