Review: Jacaranda unleashes a tribute to composer John Adams that goes a little bit ‘Berserk’

Dancers swirl around the Lyris Quartet during a Jacaranda Music tribute Saturday to composer John Adams at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

If only all proponents of contemporary classical music could channel P.T. Barnum the way Patrick Scott did on Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.

As artistic director of the Jacaranda Music series and curator of “American Berserk,” a birthday tribute to John Adams, who turns 70 next month, Scott took his musicians outside their usual venue, First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, because nothing less than a big proscenium stage would do.

No elephants or tigers were on hand, but Adams’ bold “Grand Pianola Music,” which concluded the concert in high vulgar style, did just fine. The LSD-triggered 1982 maximalist assault on good taste shows Adams channeling his inner ringmaster, letting loose with a concatenation of unlikely musical references and gestures — Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” head-to-head with Liberace cocktails, as Adams put it in his autobiography, “Hallelujah Junction.”


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Jacaranda’s music director, Mark Alan Hilt, led the Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra, complete with Wagnerian brass and a battery of percussion, in a spirited rendition of Adams’ sweeping symphonic satire. It included two pianos, played by Christopher Taylor and Gloria Cheng, with three “Sirens” — sopranos Zenaida Robles and Holly Sedillos and alto Kristin Toedtman, all members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale — singing wordless harmony in triads. There was also a six-member movement ensemble, arriving onstage at unpredictable moments and striking poses or moving in slow motion to the music.

Whatever else it may be, Adams’ “Grand Pianola Music” emerged as the work of a consummate showman, ending in a thrilling cacophony. Indeed, the entire program amounted to a colorful parade of American showmen.

Pianist Christopher Taylor and dancers Saturday at Valley Performing Arts Center.
Pianist Christopher Taylor and dancers Saturday at Valley Performing Arts Center.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times )

The concert’s first half — a solo recital by virtuoso pianist Taylor — featured three pieces by America’s first great concert pianist, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Taylor displayed breathtaking technique in the vigorous rhythms of “The Banjo,” one of Gottschalk’s bravura pieces whose inventive use of the piano’s upper register reportedly thrilled Victorian America. (He was regularly asked to perform it.)

Taylor blazed his way through Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and displayed lyrical sensitivity in Art Tatum’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Thelonius Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.” His dexterous account of Conlon Nancarrow’s disjunct Prelude (Op. 5) nearly leaped off the keyboard, and he handled the mixed meters and unrelenting rhythms of Adams’ scherzo-like 2001 “American Berserk” (the title comes from Philip Roth’s 1997 novel “American Pastoral”) with authority.

After intermission, in keeping with the night’s primary theme of rediscovering America’s musical tradition, Scott programmed three excerpts from Adams’ 1994 “John’s Book of Alleged Dances” for string quartet and pre-recorded prepared piano. Performed by the Lyris Quartet’s Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan on violin, Luke Maurer on viola and Timothy Loo on cello, “Dogjam” reveled in bluegrass fiddling, and “Habenera” conveyed the Cuban popular dance that, according to Scott’s comprehensive program notes, Gottschalk introduced to Georges Bizet. The quartet gave a hallucinatory feeling to “Judah to Ocean,” Adams’ nostalgic evocation of a streetcar line in San Francisco.

Percussionist Sidney Hopson with dancers during the "American Berserk" program.
Percussionist Sidney Hopson with dancers during the “American Berserk” program.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times )

While the Lyris performed, the movement ensemble alternated between bursts of activity and stasis, sometimes moving against the music and disrupting my concentration. Throughout the concert, one had to take their unpredictable appearances and exits as part of the brash, “let’s try this and see what happens” Jacaranda experience. Nevertheless, the company’s musicians sounded clear and full-bodied at VPAC venue. They should get out more often.

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.


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