Review: John Adams conducts young composer-performers at Disney Hall


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

An obvious sign of our times is the extraordinary multiplicity of information, and the jittery short attention spans that go along with easy access to it. So it hardly comes as a surprise that many young composers tend not, these days, to stay stylistically still for long in their pieces.

In April, for his last Green Umbrella Concert as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen introduced four young composers from three continents, all writing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink music of global scope. Tuesday night’s Green Umbrella Concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, this time with the orchestra’s New Music Group under John Adams’ direction, featured two young American composers, and they, too, proved just as eclectically jumpy.

Both are exceptional performers as well -- and this, Adams said in a preconcert discussion with his young discoveries, particularly excited him. They represent for him the idea of the modern composer being open-minded and communicative, with the performer chops to pull everything off. What he didn’t need to say is that being young, eager, inventive, stylistically omnivorous composers and gifted performers makes pianist Timothy Andres and percussionist Payton MacDonald all but irresistible to an audience.


This reaches us on a deep, I think, biological level. Theirs is a music that speaks of survival of a species. What better hope for the future of humanity than to see youth comfortable with diversity and exhibiting impressive manual and intellectual skills?

Perhaps it is no coincidence that both composers are fixated on animals. Andres spoke of his bird-watching obsession, and he fulfilled a Green Umbrella commission with an ensemble piece, “Nightjar,” named for what he described in the program notes as a small and ugly bird with “bulging eyes and gaping maw.” MacDonald’s passion is arachnological; he keeps 80 tarantulas.

Andres, 24, first came to attention as a pianist whose student performances of Ives’ monumentally difficult “Concord” Sonata won rave reviews. He began Tuesday’s program with a 10-minute piano solo, “How can I live in your world of ideas?” His answer was to amuse. Throughout he continually broke off from a Minimalist groove with flighty, delicate interruptions -- a technique he calls “needle drops.”

“Nightjar,” for 16 players and conducted by Adams, opened with a collection of delicate rustling night sounds. At one point the nightjar seemed about to fly. It started and stopped repeatedly before finally gliding away. But this was only one aspect of Andres’ intriguing ability to mimic nature in its unpredictability.

MacDonald, who is nine years older than Andres, is the percussionist of the new music ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, for which he wrote “Cowboy Tabla/Cowboy Raga” three years ago. He calls it an orchestrated tabla solo, the tabla being the small Indian drums. But the 19-minute score is actually a full-fledged percussion concerto written for a soloist with as many appendages as a spider.

On one side of the stage, MacDonald played various drums. Finished with those, he wandered over the other side where he had a bass drum and amplified marimba. Occasionally, members of the instrumental ensemble occasion left their seats to join him. Alarm Will Sound is an antsy group that rarely sits still as it plays.


The score, which began with tabla-esque drumming, went agreeably from one thing to the next. On the marimba, MacDonald rippled like a good Minimalist, and at one point he got the full ensemble to crescendo on a healthy thumping beat. Adams again conducted, but the attention remained on MacDonald, who probably didn’t need to bother orchestrating anything. He is most impressive as a one-man band.

Alarm Will Sound was the ensemble that premiered Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony” last year at Stanford University, and the composer closed his Disney program with the first performance of it in Los Angeles. The score’s father, Adams’ 1992 Chamber Symphony, is a New Music Group specialty. The progeny suits the players equally well.

Written also to serve as a Mark Morris ballet, “Son” has been criticized for breaking no new ground. The first movement gets caught up with a motive from the opening of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The middle movement is, like a number of other Adams slow movements, a long lyric melody over a strummed accompaniment. The last movement is a trope on the “News” aria from the opera “Nixon in China.”

But if “Son of Chamber Symphony” offers little news – other than Nixon’s -- what it does provide is a gratifying experience of rich complexity. For all his talk about being an accessible everyman of a composer, Adams knows very well how to thicken the plot.

The details are, in every measure, satisfyingly subtle. That melody in the middle movement is really lovely. The ending is pleasurably pulse-happy. The bright performance also presumably warmed the players up for the L.A. Philharmonic’s weekend outing -- Adams’ most recent opera, “A Flowering Tree.”

-- Mark Swed

Related story: Timothy Andres is enjoying his moment in the L.A. sun