The notion of glances as arrows that pierce bodies and souls is something that the Mexican poet Octavio Paztells us in his recent book, "In the Light of India," is a universal metaphor in poetry.
"Admire the art of the archer," as an anonymous poet in India once wrote. "He never touches the body and breaks the heart."
This metaphor also curiously exemplifies the embracing, often-splashy all-American music and musical inspirations of John Adams, which were put on display by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The composer appeared as guest conductor for the weekend's subscription concerts.
India and archers may seem pretty remote from a program that included the jazz suite for winds that Kurt Weill made of tunes from his "Threepenny Opera," arrangements of a couple of tangos by Astor Piazzolla, along with ragtime, circus marches and hymn tunes all thrown together in some small Ives pieces. In a conventional sense it is. But India lies deep under the surface of Adams' Violin Concerto, the important work on the program, and it can help understand the power of this music and its polyglot composer.
The concerto, which was heard for the first time in Los Angeles Friday night and played with arresting authority by Gidon Kremer, has been a huge modern music success story. It was written to fill many needs, being a three-way commission between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony and the New York City Ballet, and it has, more directly than any other work thus far by Adams, brought together the visceral and more transcendental sides of his musical personality. It is music meant to exploit sheer physical virtuosity of a soloist, and music to be danced to. The concerto, itself, so serious, so piercing the heart and soul in its beauty, yet so exciting, has developed a new level of respect for the composer.
Adams has memorably described his concept of the solo violin in the concerto as a dream that flows through the body of the orchestra, the "delicately articulated mass of blood, tissue, and bones." Indian as this idea sounds, he got it from an American poet, Robert Haas, whom he quotes in the title of the slow movement, "Body through which the dream flows." And it is one of the music's great accomplishments to find the common ground between this transcendental American thought and a more universal one.
But the Indian connection, which Adams has alluded to in interviews (but which went unnoted in the philharmonic's program notes, as did mention of the concerto winning music's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Grawemeyer Award) was with the actual sinuous violin writing of the work, especially in the long first movement. One radical aspect to the music is that the violin is never in competition with the orchestra but instead supported by it, as its convoluted lines, so much like the improvisations one hears in raga, seem to be part of a dance with no beginning or end.
Most wondrous is the slow movement, where an achingly beautiful solo line floats over a cliche, the bass-line that Pachelbel used in his ubiquitous canon. But Adams slows down the bass and wrenches its rhythms off the beat into complex syncopations. The last movement is a grand Minimalist machine, pulsed music pushing huge masses of sound, with the soloist displaying Paganinian fireworks.
If the soul of this concerto is in the violin, Kremer, who has made a specialty of the work (he played it last week with the New York Philharmonic), is its even deeper spirit. His playing of such tiring and demanding music was of the highest international order, yet it still had the feel of being made of the moment, something no other violinist does so persuasively. It was thus a very different type of performance than the one he plays on his celebrated Nonesuch recording (with Kent Nagano conducting the London Symphony), smoother and more gracefully, the result of Adams' more moderate tempos.
The other Adams' works on the program included the West Coast premiere of his latest orchestra work, "Slonimsky's Earbox," an exuberant 14-minute earful of Adams at his most catchy, and two Piazzolla tangos he has arranged for Kremer and orchestra in a romantically slinky and sexy way that were the flip side to the ethereal slow movement of the Violin Concerto.
Adams has more and more been making a second career as a conductor, appearing now with major international orchestras, and he demonstrates more confidence with each passing year. There was a bit of bluster in his big-band style with a small combo of philharmonic winds and percussion in the Weill "Little Threepenny Music." Even more theatrical bluster helped cover the philharmonic's slight insecurity in the raucous Ives selections ("Country Band March," "Central Park in the Dark" and Ragtime Dance No. 4). Tense though they could be, there was lots of fun in the performances.
Most important, Adams has now gotten very good at being able to share with an audience, in an interestingly conceived program, his enthusiasm for music that has its roots in our popular music, our world music and our own bodies. Rarefied an institution the symphony orchestra is, its concerts don't get this refreshingly real terribly often.