A day to remember – John Adams and Víkingur Ólafsson join Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich

John Adams conducting Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich with Víkingur Ólafsson as soloist. © Alberto Venzago

As a part of his 75th birthday celebrations, the composer John Adams has had a busy week on the podium, rehearsing three of his own works with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and pianist Víkingur Ólafsson at the orchestra’s newly-renovated, acoustically brilliant and luminously beautiful home.

On Thursday, two concerts were given, starting with a lunchtime outing, featuring the splendid orchestral fanfare Short Ride on a Fast Machine (1986) and the terrific piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018), followed by the main event in the evening, repeating both works, coupled with the composer’s epic symphony-but-name Naive and Sentimental Music (1997-98) on the second half.

Coming in the heels of large-scale symphonic canvases of Harmonielehre (1985), the five-minute Short Ride on a Fast Machine assumes the guise of an upbeat afterthought, picking up some of the harmonic and rhythmic idioms of its predecessor and recasting them into a feast of quasi-cinematic orchestral tour-de-force, inspired by an actual car ride, which took the composer way out of his comfort zone.

The music begins with an insistent pulse, hammered out by woodblocks, joined by the clear ringing of trumpet calls, summoning the whole orchestra into a feast of rhythm and sonority. Underneath the joyfully glistening surface textures, there are deeper undercurrents at play, giving rise to those ever-inspired tensions within the sounding fabric. Astonishingly orchestrated, the score provides the players with a fabulous challenge, one met with flying colours by the marvellous musicians of the Tonhalle-Orchester under the composer’s baton.

The most delightful concert opener imaginable, Short Ride on a Fast Machine was given an absolutely wonderful performance, awash with festive sonorities, driven by inspired orchestral pulsations. With Adams on the podium, the score was awaken in sounding reality with exemplary articulation and nuance, while unleashing the full potential of its wild instrumental energy.

Written in 2018 for Yuja Wang, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was first heard at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in March 2019, with its designated soloist joined by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, followed by further performances on tour throughout the US and Europe. Subsequently, the concerto has been picked up by Víkingur and Jeremy Denk, both sharing the stage with the composer from Seattle to Zürich.

”Like so many great pieces, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is hard to categorize; an unbelievable thing, which encompasses everything from minimalistic to bebop. It swings and it is hugely virtuosic. And it is also the piece I got to know John with. So it is very dear to me”, Víkingur told Adventures in Music in our recent interview.

Adams’s title for his third venture into the realm of the piano concerto is based on a quotation often attributed to Martin Luther. One of the seminal figures of the Reformation, Luther was also a composer and music-lover, for whom music was a chosen tool for connecting people and conveying the essence of theology in the most communicative manner conceivable.

While Adams’s music may be far removed from the trademark sounds of the Lutheran hymn, both composers do share an unprejudiced tendency for fusing together all kinds of musical idioms, highbrow and vernacular, in order to create new expressive entities, rooted in interchange and communication.

Cast in three interconnected movements and lasting circa twenty eight minutes, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? adopts a strikingly multi-faceted sounding identity. The first movement opens with a powerhouse introduction, marked Gritty, funky, but in strict Tempo. A grooving start for the soloist, accompanied by fortissimo chords and cracking pizzicati from celli and basses, as well as a detuned, honky-tonk orchestral keyboard, alongside a bass guitar, the concerto launches into seductively demonic whirl. After thirty bars, the soloist picks up a notably faster tempo, seguing into Twitchy, bot-like section, followed by lower winds and brass, accentuated by double basses and almglocken.

A series of breath-taking adventures ensues, as Adams reworks his material into thrilling sonic guises, making great use of the triple winds, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, bass guitar, keyboard and strings at his disposal. With very few bars left tacet for the soloist. After many marvellous twists and turns, the movement suddenly cools down into vividly nocturnal, almost Ravelian tableau, constituting an organic bridge into the Much Slower; Gently, Relaxed second movement.

A dream-like movement of free associations, some seductive, others dark-hued, the music is unraveled with buoyancy and candle-lit translucence. Clad in intricate textures for the soloist and various permutations of orchestral instruments, the movement casts a powerful spell upon the listener. Another smooth transition occurs, as a double basses and bass guitar start laying down a sublime ground pulse, Più mosso, while the solo line feels it way through a contemplative passage, paving the way for the full-blown Obsession / Swing.

In the closing movement, the music grows into an astounding dancescape. Charged with tensions in the rhythms, instrumentation and harmony, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? plunges into a chase scene par excellence, passing through many streets and alleyways, before hitting home run. On the closing section, we enter into a Haydnesque game of false endings, with the long-held string chords trying to bring the movement to its end. Each time, the soloist finds an escape, before an orchestral bell calls the show off, with its echo left ringing after full stop from the soloist and the rest of the ensemble, in resemblance of the closing gesture from Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977/1980).

A performance of gripping intensity and nuanced virtuosity, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was clad in dazzling raiments by Víkingur, the Tonhalle-Orchester and Adams. The interlocking between the soloist and the orchestra was always on point, yielding to marvellous interplay of rhythm, texture and colour. An outing rooted in profoundly shared musicality, each character and detail found in the score was brought to life utmost insight and intensity. Beautifully balanced, the textures unraveled with depth and clarity throughput the performance, well served by the Tonhalle acoustics, combining focus and warmth in an ideal manner.

Víkingur Ólafsson in rehearsal at Tonhalle Zürich. © Alberto Venzago

In the encore department, the lunch concert audiences were treated with two Bach transcriptions, the Stradal rendition of the Adagio from the Organ Sonata No. 4,BWV 528, followed by the Siloti adaptation of the Prelude in B minor, BWV 923 both given in exquisite readings by Víkingur. In the evening, the pianist delivered the most sublime performance of his own arrangement of Sigvaldi Kaldalóns’s evocative Ave Maria (1938). In his short introductory speech, Víkingur dedicated the encore to the suffering families in Ukraine, separated by war and death. As the pianist aptly pointed out, if we listened more to the wisdom of mothers, there would be less wars to fight.

Concluding the evening concert, a tremendous performance of Naive and Sentimental Music was given by the orchestra under Adams, yielding to one of the most powerful sonic journeys ever undertaken by this writer. Scored for full orchestral forces with extensive percussion section, two harps and gently amplified guitar added, the forty-five-minute score is cast in three movements, each rooted in genuinely symphonic sonic dramaturgy.

Inspired by Adams’s visit to hear the rehearsal of Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (1873-74/1878-80) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Naive and Sentimental Music takes its cue (and title) from Friedrich Schiller, no less, whose 1795-96 essay on the two aspects of poetry provided the composer with an initial impulse for his layered musical architecture. Dedicated to Salonen, Naive and Sentimental Music is the most extended orchestral statement devised by the composer, thus far, and also one of his most impressive and profound scores.

Given, that Naive and Sentimental Music is not that often performed, hearing this masterpiece in gorgeous reading by the Tonhalle-Orchester, was something truly extraordinary. For not only was the performance lauded with a heartfelt standing ovation, the two first movements were also met with enthusiastic applause from the Tonhalle audience.

Although rooted in the Bruckner experience, Adams’s sonic architecture in each of the movements is conceived quite organically, in contrast to the Austrian master’s block-like constructions. In fact, some of the musical transformations within Naive and Sentimental Music come off in somewhat Sibelian manner, bearing family relationship with the Finnish composer, who, in his turn, was also inspired by Bruckner.

There are, certainly, some Mahlerian aspects found in Adams’s symphonic storytelling too, with notable nods towards Charles Ives as well, especially in those sonic terrific cataracts, where several musical strata are superimposed. Yet, Naive and Sentimental Music sounds unmistakably Adamsian from start to finish, constituting a riveting orchestral drama. Although the music remains elusive enough to shun away from any literal narrative, it’s emotional storytelling is utmost compelling.

The twenty-minute opening movement, the one actually titled Naive and Sentimental Music, is set in motion by strumming chords over which an elaborate flute line is unveiled and developed. A movement of stark contrasts and interwoven textures, the score engages the full orchestral forces into a multi-faceted sequence of transformation and recurrence, bound together within an extended symphonic arch.

A reflection of Ferruccio Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque (1907), the second movement, Mother of the Man features a delicate solo guitar part, flickering among the orchestral fabric. As the movement proceeds, the music becomes more and more introspective and frail, before erupting into a gripping sonic burst, coloured by frantic ringing of bells. In final contemplation, the opening textures make their return, and the music evaporates in the mists on the closing pages.

The finale, Chain to the Rhythm constitutes a massive culmination for Naive and Sentimental Music. A superimposed mixture of rippling, minimalistic mallet pulsations and more complex almglocken patterns are fused together with full orchestra, resulting in a textures of quirky accents and complex harmonies. The movement builds up to a shattering climax, followed by a brooding coda.

A performance of a lifetime, Adams and the Tonhalle-Orchester navigated through the stormy sonic landscapes of Naive and Sentimental Music with unique authority and musicianship, laying out the symphonic storyline with full virtuosity and gripping vividness. Be it the superb string section, soaring winds, mighty brass, glimmering harps or the wondrous guitar solos, not to mention the percussion section, busy with timpani, mallet instruments, tuned gongs, bass drum and bells, the orchestra provided the audience with a terrific performance under the composer. A superb conclusion to an unforgettable evening at Tonhalle.

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich

John Adams, conductor

Víkingur Ólafsson, piano

John Adams: Short Ride on a Fast Machine (1986) for orchestra

John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) – Concerto for piano and orchestra

John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music (1997-98) for orchestra

Tonhalle Zürich

Thursday 17 March 2021, 12.15 and 19.30

© Jari Kallio

3 thoughts on “A day to remember – John Adams and Víkingur Ólafsson join Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich

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  1. Great review, and great writing, Word-Presser! I wrote a review of, and loved, our John Adams performance in Seattle, as well. Keep writing! Thanks, and keep supporting art!

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