John Adams joins the Cleveland Orchestra for a dazzling all-American contemporary programme

Jeremy Denk and the Cleveland Orchestra performing John Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) under the composer’s baton at Severance Hall in February. © Roger Mastroianni

Back on the podium to guest-conduct the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, composer John Adams has come up with the most inspiring all-American contemporary programme, now available for streaming as a part of the orchestra’s In Focus online series. Teaming up with pianist Jeremy Denk and saxophonist Steven Banks, the orchestra and Adams deliver an outstanding playlist, featuring thrilling musical entries from three generations of American composers.

There are two works by the octogenarian founding fathers of Minimalism, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, included, alongside music by Carlos Simon and Gabriella Smith, both in their thirties, with as Adams’s own terrific piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) rounding off the evening. The programme, performed with uplifting enthusiasm, admirable dedication and profound rhythmic vigour, displays notable diversity, with the five scores bound together by their root pulsations.

Launching into top-class music-making, the orchestra and Adams provide the audience with an invigorating liftoff, embarking upon an oscillating journey through Reich’s Three Movements (1986), one of the composer’s most instantly-appealing works. Based on fast-slow-fast overall scheme, the fifteen-minute score has its roots in Reich’s own Sextet (1984-85), most notably in the second movement, which is, in fact, a note-to-note orchestration of the penultimate movement of the earlier chamber ensemble score.

In terms of stage setup, there is some reseating involved, as the score calls for placing the all-important percussion section, two marimbas, two vibraphones, two pianos and bass drum, right in front of the conductor, with the strings divided into two equal groups on both sides of the stage, while winds and brass retain their usual seating. A stage plan somewhat akin to that of Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the seating is rooted in the conception of the music itself, based on interlocking canonic passages, layered on top of each other, giving rise to a contrapuntal feast, with shifting rhythmic accents à la Igor Stravinsky.

The opening movement stems from keyboard and mallet pulsations, joined by strings. The music grows into full orchestral canvas, with shifting harmonies crossing each other like clouds drifting across the sunlit sky. Ensuing without pause, the second movement cuts tempo in half, as the vibraphones, oboes and violins sound out an absolutely spellbinding, slowly unraveling canon, punctuated by bass drum beats and low string rumours. On the final pages, the woodwinds are dropped, and the vibraphone patterns take the stage, before the music bridges into the closing movement.

Following an orchestral build-up, a buzzing instrumental fabric is unveiled, with a gorgeous bass line delivered by contrabassoon and double-basses. Bright interjections from the brass are heard, as the movement climbs up to soaring heights. In celestial conclusion, the music evaporates into zenith.

A thrilling opening, Three Movements comes off beautifully with Adams and the Cleveland Orchestra. An energetic performance awash with colour, the outer movements are embedded with marvellously refined pulsations, whereas the slow central movement is a case in point of pure magic in sonic garments.

To keep the enchantment going, the programme segues with Glass’s iconic Façades (1982) from the composer’s milestone album Glassworks. Scored for solo soprano saxophone and an ensemble of strings and clarinet, the music was originally conceived as a part of Glass’s score for Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi (1982), underscoring a scene depicting Wall Street skyscrapers. However, the scene was eventually dropped from the final cut, and the composer re-used the music for his CBS recording debut.

Over the past forty years, Façades has become one of Glass’s best-loved concert pieces, often programmed by his own ensemble and orchestras alike. A chaconne of sorts, the strings lay down a repeating harmonic progression, with pulse, over which the soloist plays sublime, quasi-improvisatory melodic lines, coloured by orchestral clarinet.

A sonic meditation, Façades may sound quite simple and straightforward, but the ten-minute score calls forth unyielding focus and sonic finesse, in order to let the music take wing and shape. The performance of Banks, the members of the Cleveland Orchestra and Adams is one of glimmering beauty and buoyancy, giving rise to dream-like, otherworldly ritual, contemplating on slowly permuting harmony and evocative melody.

Despite its brevity, Carlos Simon’s powerhouse orchestral tableau Fate Now Conquers (2020) constitutes a splendid instrumental narrative. The composer takes his cue from Ludwig van Beethoven by weaving small rhythmic cells from the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony (1811-12) into the instrumental fabric. Propulsive and jubilant, the music takes the shape of a summoning ritual, where primordial energy and refined orchestration are joined, with contemplative undertones.

An absorbing performance from the orchestra and Adams, Fate Now Conquers is well served at Severance Hall. A gloriously pulsating opening sets the score in motion, with longer melodic lines from the trumpets joining in some pages later. Midway through, the music adopts more intimate tone, manifested in a luminous cello line. Back at the beat, Fate Now Conquers closes with a splendid orchestral round-up. A combination of rousing pulse and captivating detail, Simon’s score is a five-minute gem.

A brilliant study of orchestral textures, Gabriella Smith’s Tumblebird Contrails (2014) is a case in point of instrumental story-telling at the most inventive level. The ten-minute score opens with percussive hue and quietly rumbling strings, out of which the first woodwind and brass chords gradually emerge, embedded with seagull-calls, rustling winds and the breaking of waves. An intricate middle section ensues, meditating on subtle layers of sound and colour, resulting from traditional and extended techniques alike. Closing with a resplendent array of sonics, Tumblebird Contrails is a masterstroke.

Under Adams, the Cleveland Orchestra delivers a vibrant outing, with clear focus on instrumental detail and balance, giving rise to an entrancing portrait of nature. Smith’s sonic continuums are realised with gripping finesse by the orchestra, with Adams taking good care of the overall musical architecture.

Adams’s terrific 2018 piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is a celebration of virtuosity, clad in multi-faceted raiments of blues, funk, and minimalism, woven together with various classical idioms, resulting in an unmistakably Adamsian musical grammar. Written for Yuja Wang, who premiered the concerto in March 2019 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? has subsequently been picked up by Víkingur Ólafsson and Jeremy Denk for series of performances in the US and Europe, conducted by the composer.

Following concert outings in Seattle and St Louis in January, Adams and Denk brought the concerto to Cleveland, delivering a powerhouse performance of utmost musicality. Playing from memory, Denk’s mastery over the almost incessant solo part is tangible from bar one, and the musical dialogue between the soloist, the orchestra and the conductor is seamlessly creative, giving rise to an astounding take on Adams’s marvellous score.

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? Is cast in three movements, played without pause. The concerto begins with a groove, as the soloist, accompanied by low strings, electric bass and detuned orchestral piano, launches into Gritty, funky, but in strict tempo introduction. After the initial build-up, the music picks up faster tempo, marked Twitchy, bot-like. A musical sequence of angular rhythms and multi-faceted dialogue ensues, as the solo piano ventures through ever-transforming landscapes, painted in riveting colours by the orchestra.

Eventually, nocturnal ambience prevails, with translucent textures, and the music flows into dreamy, introverted second movement. Here, the concerto turns captivatingly contemplative, as the soloist wanders weightlessly through the realm of sleep, shrouded in string and wind textures, with all-important contributions from bass guitar, honky-tonk piano and percussion.

With the most sublime transition, the third movement is come. The fabric begins to gain more speed and sonic weight, mounting to whirling dance, marked Obsessive / Swing. An almost cinematic chase scene ensues, abundant with keyboard virtuosity and orchestral dexterity. Before the final double-bar, there is a Haydnesque game of false endings and restarts, before the concerto plunges into its home run, with solitary orchestral bell ringing out after all else has fallen silent.

A tremendous conclusion for Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, the performance by Denk, Adams and the Cleveland Orchestra is one to dwell long in memory. Played with sweep and grit, the dialogue between the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra operates on the highest level of reactivity and connectivity, in the best chamber-like manner, despite the large forces at play.

In addition to all the wonderful performances, there are fascinating behind-the scenes material incorporated, including interviews with Adams and both soloists, as well as the orchestra’s stage manager Joseph Short. As a delightful bonus, we get to hear a small excerpt of Banks and Adams workshopping the composer’s Saxophone Concerto (2013) as well; online presentation at its finest.

The Cleveland Orchestra

John Adams, conductor

Jeremy Denk, piano

Steven Banks, saxophone

Steve Reich: Three Movements (1986) for orchestra

Philip Glass: Façades (1982) from ”Glassworks”

Carlos Simon: Fate Now Conquers (2020) for orchestra

Gabriella Smith: Tumblebird Contrails (2014) for orchestra

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

Filmed at Severance Hall, Cleveland on 4-6 February 2022

Released online on Adella Live on 1 April 2022

© Jari Kallio

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