Adams and Mozart (and Martin Fröst) inspire de Waart and the NZSO

JOHN ADAMS – Shaker Loops
MOZART – Clarinet Concerto in A Major K.622
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.6 in F Major Op.58 “Pastoral”
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday 7th April, 2016

John Adams (b.1947) has for some time been popularly regarded as one of the “big three” of minimalist music composition, along with Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The term “minimalist” was used to describe a specific creative aesthetic involving the reduction to the bare essentials of whatever medium the creative artist worked with – in music this involved using repetition of melodic and rhythmic ideas to express minute gradations and subtle alterations of the original material, in order to “grow” something new.

Adams’ work “Shaker Loops”, first on the programme in tonight’s concert, was originally conceived as a string quartet, before the composer decided, after a less-than-satisfactory first performance, that he needed “a larger, thicker ensemble”, and so re-scored the piece for a string septet, completing the work in 1978. Whether it was through further dissatisfaction, or merely a desire to extend the performance possibilities of the piece, Adams then reworked the septet for string orchestra in 1982, in which form it has become one of the composer’s most well-known works.

The title of the piece draws from the name “Shakers” given to an American Puritan sect whose intense ecstasy of worship resulted in their physically “shaking” while at prayer – while the term “Loops” refers to the minimalist technique of splicing and repeating segments of pre-recorded tape, to give a sense of endless repetition. The composer described his intention as summoning up an “ecstatic frenzy of a dance that culminates in an epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence”.

Edo de Waart has previously recorded Adams’ piece in its string orchestra version with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, one of a much-acclaimed series of recordings of the composer’s works by the conductor, made while Adams was composer-in-residence with the orchestra. Little wonder, then, that the performance by the NZSO strings in Wellington shimmered and crackled with a sure focus and intensity at the outset, a “knowing what was what”. De Waart’s leadership inspired a living, breathing realisation of the music’s closely-knit moods over four continuous movements, bringing out both continuums and contrasts, which led the ear on right to the work’s spacious, reflective conclusion.

That was the culmination of a journey which began with “classic” minimalist gesturings in the opening “Shaking and Trembling”, the patternings and texturings undergoing modifications of a sort that suggested different kinds of motoric response to traversals of varied terrain. As these scurrying notes gradually retreated and became the “ambient background” of the second movement’s “Hymning Slews”, some beautifully wind-blown Aeolian-like harmonies created an eerie, almost ritualistic atmosphere, with chord-clusters glowing through the textures like soft lights, certain figures lazily slurred, while others sounded harmonics which led to bewitching bird-song-like trills, the vistas thrown open and the silences enlivened, an almost Copland-esque feel imparted to the proceedings.

A stealthy, new harmony brought on an awakening of the lower strings, with Berlioz-like irruptions from the basses, and ascending ‘cello motifs, the playing “digging in”, bringing out a glowing intensity and enlivening energy, the “Loops and Verses” of the music’s third part, the ensemble patiently blowing smoke-rings around the persona of a great engine, whose powerhouse was driving its rods and pistons faster and faster, desirous of achieving a result. But almost as quickly, these motoric energies seemed to peak and flag, as if the impulses seemed to catch a whiff of something greater and more lasting overhead, pinpricks of distant light contrasting with the occasional rumbling of the basses – we were left at the end with the firmament overhead, and the earth below, in worshipful and luminous accord. As a realisation of a journey’s full circle, this seemed to me a great performance of a great work!

Following this was the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, which brought Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst before us, a musician acclaimed world-wide for his peerless instrumental skills and his thoughtful, soul-enriching interpretations. By way of welcoming their distinguished soloist, Edo de Waart and the orchestra began the concerto with a finely-wrought introduction, imbued with both strength and delicacy, one whose warmth and fullness of tone seemed happily removed from any didactic stylistic mode which might have proclaimed any kind of “authenticity” (oh, dear! – that just slipped out! – sorry!)….

Martin Fröst instantly took up and furthered these utterances with exquisitely-turned phrases expressed in tones that, true to the composer’s dictum, “flowed like oil”, but also seemed to value each and every note as something with its own distinction. At first I found his playing stance unduly distracting, with its somewhat “praying mantis-like” aspect (at times he appearing to be almost “stalking” his conductor as a likely victim!) – but once I’d gotten used to these quasi-choreographic poses, I began to relish the endless variety of his playing, suggesting a wealth of human experience and sensibility.

I read somewhere (not in the programme notes) that Fröst used for another concert performance of the work a modern replica of a “basset clarinet”, an instrument which was in vogue in Mozart’s time and which the work’s original dedicatee, Anton Stadler, probably used – the basset enables the player to use lower notes than are found on a conventional instrument. To me it sounded as if certain passages of Fröst’s playing were lower than usual, indicating that the basset replica was being used here. It extended the expressive range of the performance, having extra depths in the instrument’s lower register.

What a distillation of pure beauty was the opening of the slow movement! – the orchestral response matched the soloist’s rapt tones at the outset with a heartfeltness of its own. Fröst played some gorgeous flourishes at a couple of the cadences, moments which held fast for a few precious seconds the beauty of the discourse between clarinet and orchestra – a very slight earthquake during the latter stages of the movement failed to garner much attention, such was the spell cast by the performers with this music.

Mozart concerto finales often play “cat-and-mouse” between the soloist and the orchestra – this one, though more poised and genteel than in a lot of the piano concertos, still provides a sense of fun – the ensemble’s forthrightness contrasted beautifully with the clarinet’s moments of introspection, though the discourse wasn’t all one way, with the soloist’s lines occasionally rich and strong, and the orchestral phrases in more sober, supporting roles. While the applause at the end was primarily for Fröst, conductor and orchestra deserved much of the credit with their well-rounded and ever-alert contributions to the ebb and flow of one of the composer’s most sublime creations.

Predictably, the extended (and well-deserved) audience applause brought Fröst back out for an encore, though by no means a conventional or predictable one – this was a work called Klezmer Dance No.3, written by Goran Fröst (Martin Fröst’s brother) for clarinet and ensemble (the NZSO players were obviously well-prepared!). The music’s freewheeling energies were brilliantly delivered by all concerned, leaving the status quo of clarinettists being the most spectacular solo performers with the NZSO in recent times (Finnish virtuoso Kari Kriikku being another recent candidate for this award) undisturbed, even if last year’s star ‘cellist Johannes Moser ran these two close in his NZSO concert.

After this, further delight awaited, in the form of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony – but whether it was because the performance of the Mozart had left my sensibilities little room for additional wonderment and rapture, or because conductor and orchestra were at the end of “playing out” after an arduous tour (since March 30th, from Hamilton to Dunedin), I felt the performance didn’t quite “go on” from the first movement’s beautifully-sprung rhythms and lyrical outpourings. A pity – because De Waart and the players here caught the music’s many currents and eddies, finding, I thought, sufficient balance between incidental delight and on-going purpose to make Beethoven’s paean of praise work both as a kind of tone-poem and a symphonic journey – the conductor didn’t particularly “point” the minimalist-like repetitions of the first movement’s development, but they still made their impact, resonating all the more in the wake of the Adams work we’d heard earlier.

Though the orchestral playing, especially that of the winds, made for some beautiful sequences in the “Scene by the Brook” I missed here a sense of true rapture, of “giving over” to the music’s spell to the point where I felt uplifted and entranced by it all – I wanted to experience those murmuring water-currents, and to sing with the lullabic melody-lines, but it all somehow remained earthbound for me – and a momentary lapse of ensemble between strings and winds at one point didn’t help the music’s cause. Unlike with the first movement’s beauties, I coudn’t find a proper “way in” to the evocations, despite the sterling work done by the winds – and why the cuckoo-calls at the end of the movement were played in so perfunctory a manner to my ears, I couldn’t fathom (usually such a magical moment).

But again, the orchestral detailing in the third movement’s “Peasants’ Merrymaking” was superb, with horn-playing to die for, and droll interactions between oboe and bassoon which properly caught the music’s rusticity, though I felt the strings could have been encouraged to roughen up the textures just a little, during their “knees-up” sequence, which for me was a shade too “polished” in effect. As was the introduction to the storm, which (sensationalist that I am) I wanted to spit and rumble and moan more pointedly, just before the first great outburst – still, there were marvellous roarings from the timpani and, later, some anguished cries from the piccolo, answered with unequivocal elemental force from brass and timps in the time-honoured manner.

Re-reading my notes returns me more readily to the performance’s incidental beauties and delights, especially so with the finale – clarinet and horn exchanging calls so beautifully at the finale’s beginning, strings and brass building up the hymn-like song of thanksgiving to the point of fervour, and, after the nature-gods have received their dues, the sound of the horn solo at the very end, sealing up the music’s magic, and evoking Tennyson’s words, “answer, echoes, answer – dying, dying….” These were treasurable sequences, though I was still left at the end wondering why I didn’t feel (as I DID during the Mozart concerto performance in the first half), that continued presence of something “casting a glow over the proceedings”, which de Waart and the orchestra also achieved in their Mahler and Elgar performances last year. Modified rapture, then, but certainly enough to eagerly await what lies in store for us throughout the orchestral year’s remainder, here in Wellington.

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