In his opening remarks to the audience, John Adams wryly noted that although the tickets were printed with the announcement “Beethoven and John Adams” this was likely a “marketing requirement.” The music, he assured us, is all his. But Beethoven did provide the inspiration for Absolute Jest (2012), not only the bulk of the thematic material but also its hard-driving energy. Adams also asked the newly-formed New York Philharmonic String Quartet (made up of first-desk players) to present excerpts from Beethoven’s Opuses 131 and 135 that figure prominently in the work – and these snippets were marvelously played.
Happily, the performance of Absolute Jest itself was better still. Alan Gilbert had the Philharmonic on its toes, dancing through the score’s rhythmic complexities with grace and bringing out its lyricism. There was a dream-like feeling, too, as the music’s quickly-shifting moods dissolved fluidly one into the other. Gilbert’s deft balance of quartet and orchestra was impressive. This is a densely contrapuntal piece (Adams spoke of the richness of Beethoven’s inner voices in the ‘late’ String Quartets) and the crystalline clarity of this account was dazzling. The quartet’s sweet, clear tone and taut phrasing was echoed and extended by the orchestra. Adams describes Absolute Jest as an enormous Scherzo, but one could just as easily view it as a Concerto grosso on steroids. It’s a thrilling showpiece – and surprisingly affecting.
The concert was given in celebration of Adams’s 70th-birthday, and while two works don’t quite make up a retrospective, the juxtaposition of Absolute Jest with Harmonielehre (1985) proved both instructive and satisfying. Harmonielehre is one of the pieces that established Adams’s reputation, and while it lacks the contrapuntal and rhythmic intricacy of his more-recent work, one can hear that the essential qualities of his musical personality – his idiosyncratic use of harmonic and color, and keen sense of drama and architecture – are already firmly in place. Gilbert underscored these elements in an extraordinarily cogent and exhilarating account. The pounding E-minor chords at the opening didn’t pummel, but were shaped into a powerful phrase that had sculptural dimensionality. Then, once the meter began to flow, he made the music’s various layers discernible – the slowly-unfolding harmonies and nervous rhythmic ostinatos moving in tandem to create an aural stroboscopic effect. The slow movement was similarly mesmeric. Gilbert patiently evoked and sustained a mood of Sibelian bleakness while also paying homage to Expressionism and Schoenberg’s experiments with klangfarbenmelodie (sound-color-melody) in the gleaming bloom of the woodwinds. The Finale built inexorably to its ecstatic culmination, the brass pouring forth resplendent arcs of sound over floor-shaking percussive palpitations.
This was a spectacular concert, one of the best by the New York Philharmonic in recent memory. Alan Gilbert, now near the end of his tenure as music director, will be sorely missed.