Bigger Proves Better in Adams’ Grandiose World


John Adams’ massive “Naive and Sentimental Music,” which was given its world premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Friday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is not what it first seems. Compelling, original and assured, it is music hardly representative of its title, at least in the modern sense of naive or sentimental. And although it’s Adams’ most ambitious orchestral score, it does not represent a stylistic breakthrough as have a number of his other major scores (the orchestral “Harmonielehre” and Violin Concerto or the operas “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer”).

Pluck just about any phrase from the 48 minutes of “Naive and Sentimental Music,” and it will sound familiar. The use of the big orchestra as a lumbering machine that huffs and puffs during breathtaking liftoff, the employment of endless melodies that weave with winsome unpredictability for minutes on end, the chugging rhythms and the dazzling instrumental colors are all known footprints of America’s most admired orchestral composer. It is, as Adams’ music has been before, jazzy and melancholy.

But, a heavier ship, its takeoffs are more gravity-defying; its melodies, more winsome; its colors, more dazzling; its jazz, jazzier; its rhythmic energy, more obsessive; its melancholy, more devastating; its surprises, more surprising. Everything is bigger and better.


Size, this huge canvas seems to be saying, in the popular parlance, matters. And to some extent it does. Size draws us in, makes us feel part of something grand. The first movement culminates with a magnificent onrush of sound and energy. The third movement ends the work with pealing bells and joyful annunciatory horns, the rushing of strings and winds. These are awe-inspiring vistas that no small music could produce.


Still, like the best epics, “Naive and Sentimental Music” is ultimately personal, intimate. We need to place ourselves within the vast universe and among the masses, and it is in the epic in which individual stories peek through the onrush of history that we can do so. The grandeur of Adams’ sonic panorama, then, is an inflating of sensation, not of sentiment.

The title, more than the music, needs explanation. Adams has hoped to revive the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s notions of naive and sentimental from 200 years ago. For Schiller the naive poet was intuitive, at one with nature, whereas the sentimental poet consciously inserted himself in society and in history.

Adams has fought that battle with himself over the years. Earlier works divided between an intentionally trickster persona and a more despondent one. By now the musical schizophrenia is healed.

Stylistically, too, “Naive and Sentimental Music” is a grand, healthy synthesis. Our ending century runs all through it--Scriabin’s ecstatic trumpet here, the stuttering swells of Steve Reich’s winds there; the soberly quiet open strings of Copland here, the brash big-band sound of Ellington there. The angular rhythms of Stravinsky’s Hollywood period, an expressionistic scream of anguish from Mahler’s Vienna, and groovy strummed guitar chords from the summer of love all happily cohabit.


An enormous amount of activity occurs throughout the three movements and their tens of thousands of notes, but the musical argument is remarkably clear, especially for a composer who is known to meander. Liquid, syncopated melody, never predictable, never resolving but immediately appreciable, journeys through a first movement adventure. The second movement, inspired by a Busoni berceuse, takes its character from luminous open strings, the ringing of bells (cowbells and temple bells), and the slicing shimmer of a bowed vibraphone. Through it is a touching amplified guitar solo. The third movement has a Minimalist core, repeated motives accruing and discarding notes one at a time, a rush of rhythm, a bedazzlement of orchestration.


The work, a symphony in all but name, is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted its premiere with an arresting sense of command. For all the music’s immediacy, it is a huge challenge for conductor and orchestra, and Friday there were first-night jitters. It had a shaky launch with flaccid guitar and uncertain flutes and oboes. But with thrilling control, Salonen righted what appeared to be an eminent crash, and the performance ultimately achieved the music’s magnificence.

The audience responded with thunder. This is music people want to hear and should hear. The Philharmonic, though, has been too stingy: only three performances instead of the four for most subscription programs, and it is not part of this summer’s Hollywood Bowl schedule.

But the concert, itself, was a happy occasion. The tone for Adams was curiously but illuminatingly set by a titillating, alert performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 7 (“Le Midi”), a score that anticipated the modern symphony, thus book-ending Adams’ post-symphony symphony. It also included Heinrich Schiff’s gripping performance of Schumann’s strange, loopy, Romantically excessive Cello Concerto.