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John Adams with the LSO, The Barbican Centre, London, March 11th 2010

March 13, 2010

John Adams is one of that cohort of American composers including Philip Glass, Steve Reich and to an extent Michael Nyman who have ‘crossed over’ into popularity. Which is not to say they play popular music, but there’s something about their free use of demotic musical ideas that allows non-specialist listeners to enter the world of the modern orchestra and complex arrangements. Perhaps Leonard Bernstein was the first composer to make this crossover, but the roots go back to Gershwin nearly 90 years ago.

Of course, this popularity attracts vociferous critics from the world of classical music. Much like trad folkies or blues bores, they feel it necessary to defend some illusory ‘tradition’ against the musically eclectic barbarians at the gate. And like those people, they are wrong. All strands of music flow and evolve over time and that is a reason for celebration and continuing curiosity about human creativity.

I was brought up in a home that not only listened to pop, rock and folk, but also classical music. My mother, in addition to being something of a reggae fan on the side, listened to Radio 3 all day long, so I’m familiar with Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach and the rest of that pantheon. But there was something about the music of Reich, Glass and Adams that caught my ear in a different way.

I heard Adams’ fabulous Harmonium shortly after it was premiered and subsequently enjoyed listening to (but not seeing) his operas Nixon In China and The Death Of Klinghoffer. So I was intrigued by the chance to see the European premiere of his latest work, City Noir, a half-hour, three-movement homage to the seamy side of 40s and 50s LA. It’s inspired not only by Hollywood noir but also, in Adams’ words, by ‘reading the so-called Dream books by Kevin Starr, a brilliantly imagined, multi-volume cultural and social history of California’.

The first two movements play out a wide panorama of city streets, jazz clubs, dark corners and illicit liaisons, but the last movement, Boulevard Night, is a real tour de force. In his programme notes, Adams himself explains: ‘The music should have the slightly disorienting effect of a very crowded boulevard peopled with strange characters, like those of a David Lynch film – the kind who only come out very late on a very hot night.’ And it works, as the thundering influence of Stravinsky comes to the fore and the climactic final minute is some of the most exciting music I’ve heard for a long time.

Here’s the concluding part of that last movement from the piece’s premiere in LA last October:

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