John Adams has a ‘Son’ that he can be proud of

Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO -- John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony,” which was given its premiere Friday night at Stanford University, is a chip off the old block.

In his Chamber Symphony, Adams sassed Schoenberg. Fifteen years ago, he sat in his studio in Berkeley studying the German composer’s Chamber Symphony -- a classic work from Schoenberg’s early, atonal years -- while his 7-year-old son watched classic cartoons. Delirious “Road Runner” soundtracks and equally delirious music by Schoenberg, a soon-to-be 12-tone-row-runner, collided in his imagination. The result was a new classic with mongrel airs, to use the title Adams gave the work’s first movement.

The new chamber symphony, written for 16 players, is pure Adams, who at 60 has become something of an old master himself: He relies on formulas that have worked before. In a question-and-answer session after the premiere, one young audience member testily asked him whether he would even consider writing a piece that wasn’t in three movements. Adams good-naturedly said he would.


What’s more, the composer admitted that maybe his technique of planting a lovely, irregular wandering melody atop strummed harmonies for a middle movement has gotten a little old. And maybe it has. But Adams has never done it more engagingly than in “Son,” in which an ornate melody begun by flute and clarinet blooms into a complex, richly imagined hothouse orchard.

But “Son” is feisty too, perhaps partly because it was commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts for the cheerful young ensemble Alarm Will Sound. The group, begun by students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., puts a high premium on fun and games. It preceded the Adams work with a program called “a/rhythmia,” an exploration of unpredictable music -- some old, some up to the minute -- that subverts the beat.

The old included arrangements of 14th century polyphony. New was electronica courtesy of stunning Aphex Twin and Mochipet arrangements. And among the strictly unpredictable was a version of “Philosophy of the World,” the title song from a 1969 album by the three-woman rock band the Shaggs, a cult favorite for their incompetence. From the new music pantheon, Nancarrow, Ligeti and Birtwistle were invited to the arhythmic party as well.

Alarm Will Sound’s gimmick is in its staging of such rhythmically demanding music. Pieces become meet-and-greet events, with players entering the stage one by one, tooting and bowing to one another. In the ticking third movement of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, Alan Pierson conducted while kneeling on the floor.

A few works were sit-down affairs. Trying to maintain the Shaggs’ rhythmic disunion was tough enough, and amusing enough, by itself (percussionist and conductor each needed to listen to click tracks on headphones to remain so radically disconnected).

The priority of theater over technical polish will not please all. The fact that Alarm Will Sound is more impressive while up and about than when seated -- clearly because its “stand-up” routines require such intense rehearsal -- puts it in danger of becoming alarmingly cute.


But at least the players have composers such as Adams to keep them on their technical toes. The “Son” premiere was rough, and the composer knew it would be. He even said that, wonderful as it was, say, to have his music played with incomparable lushness by the Berlin Philharmonic, he retains a fondness for the excitement of rawer sound, and he compared Friday’s situation to “shaving with a dull razor.”

Adams made it harder on the ensemble by being very late with the score, finishing the slow movement only a couple of days before the premiere. For the third movement, he orchestrated a short string quartet piece, “Fellow Traveler,” that he wrote for the Kronos Quartet to play at Peter Sellars’ 50th birthday party two months ago.

“Son” is as difficult as his original chamber symphony, if not more so. The first movement sets out to the accompaniment of a rhythmic motif lifted from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, then nervously yet confidently scurries all over the place, changing meters all the time. Absorbing its interesting details will require many listenings. The last movement is one of those Adams bucking-bronco blastoffs, riveting and full of surprises.

“Son of Chamber Symphony” has an assured future. Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Ballet, it will receive its New York premiere in February. Choreography to it by Mark Morris will be unveiled in the spring. But even without such insurance, a kid with these goods should have no problem making his way in the world.