A heavy bouncer on the door

By William Dart

Composer John Adams.
Composer John Adams.

John Adams is one of the more familiar composers on the contemporary classical circuit. The American's 1987 opera, Nixon in China, was a success on the screens of Northcote and Newmarket in the Metropolitan Opera's popular Metlive series.

Aucklanders have enjoyed more than one performance of The Chairman Dances, Adams' "foxtrot for orchestra", as well as the thrilling choral/orchestral fusion of Harmonielehre.

Tomorrow, you can catch Adams' 1988 Fearful Symmetries, played by Auckland Chamber Orchestra. It is the grand finale of a programme that ranges from Messiaen's La Merle Noir and George Crumb's Vox Balaenae, to Mask by the young Dutchman Michael van der Aa.

Adams is one hip guy when talking about his essentially minimalist music. His 1984 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing An American Life, is a compulsive read; elsewhere, Fearful Symmetries is cheerily likened to "one of those Soho night clubs with a heavy bouncer at the door".

He has no fear of dissenters, either, and is happy to quote a London critic dismissing this piece as "25 minutes of pumping iron".

However, Adams' own assessment of a score that "mixes the weight and bravura of a big band with the glittering synthetic sheen of techno pop (samples and synthesiser) and the facility and finesse of a symphony orchestra", makes one impatient for tomorrow's concert.

Conductor Peter Scholes, on the eve of his first rehearsal with David Kelly and Tatiana Lanchtchikova on synthesisers, sees the electronic keyboards as "very much part of a piece that rises up like a great breathing animal, pulsating with gorgeous, changing harmonies".

"It is all about rhythm," he says. "There's a lot going on and it all has to line up and be absolutely precise."

Despite exotica that includes a quartet of saxophones, there are also more familiar instruments, played by musicians who have performed alongside Scholes for decades. Pianist David Guerin is a familiar ACO guest, just last month lending his mana to Janacek's very eccentric Concertino.

This man is one of the finest pianists our country has produced, noted for his wide-ranging repertoire, yet he has done so much on behalf of the contemporary.

Guerin has played Stockhausen's daunting Kontakte and remembers "a whole big Messiaen episode in my career, when that composer was completely novel in New Zealand".

He talks of the "instinctual appeal" of new music and how he "adored the sensuous experience of its sound world".

Of Adams, he owns up to "a general bias against the minimalist thing", but this American's music is allotted "much more time of day".

This is music for a band of virtuosi, written by a sly composer who "is aware of all the details even when you can't hear them".

James Tennant is best known as a member of the Hamilton-based New Zealand Chamber Soloists and, as both cellist and inspirational teacher, he is an ardent enthusiast for the music of today.

"It's up to us to present it in a relevant way to our audiences," he says. "It's an expression of our current stories, thoughts and ideas and it's important that these are conveyed with a real passion."

He was turned on to Fearful Symmetries when Scholes alerted him to a series of YouTube clips in which Jerome Bosc presents Adams' music as an accompaniment to the often deadpan antics of Buster Keaton.

"It was quite a buzz," enthuses Tennant. "And then I opened the score of Fearful Symmetries and there were 14 pages of constant counting. I can't wait."


Performance

What: Auckland Chamber Orchestra

Where and when: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, 6 Silver Rd, Epsom, tomorrow at 5pm

- NZ Herald

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