John Adams


I had a great treat yesterday: I went to a performance of three of John Adams' pieces, conducted by the composer with the LSO and featuring Joanna MacGregor.

The pieces were Lollapalooza, Century Rolls and Harmonielehre - all wonderful uplifting, joyful bits of music. Lollapalooza is a very jolly, rambunctious, almost jazz-like piece, with an incredibly complex rhythm. It's quite short, but a lot of fun. Century Rolls features a solo piano, and was inspired by piano roll recordings of famous performers and composers from the last century. The first and last movements are fiendishly complex and fast, and it was fascinating watching Joanna MacGregor's hands blurring over the keyboard at an unbelievable rate. She really is a superb performer, a million miles away from the stuffed shirts you normally associate with solo piano. Her braided hair flew around as she bopped and bounced along with the rhythms, smiling and almost laughing out loud at the pleasure of playing something so hard so well.

Harmonielehre was even more superb. It's a huge feel-good piece, with an enormous ensemble, where brass and percussion (and two harps - how's that for extravagance!) feature strongly. Apparently the first movement was inspired by a vision John had of a supertanker emerging out of the sea at great speed - like a Saturn space rocket. It starts and ends with enormous energy, and you find yourself holding your breath with excitement without realizing it. When it ends, you suddenly remember that your body does actually need oxygen, and gasp for air.

John Adams is an immensely talented and under-rated composer. His music is diverse in style, exciting, and emotionally-charged. It is very complex in composition (you can listen again and again and hear new patterns and rhythms emerging), but at the same time, it's very enjoyable and approachable for an audience. Live performances are particularly special. There's the heightened anticipation you get from watching the performers gearing themselves up for a climax, but you also feel the music physically - something that's impossible to replicate even with a great hi-fi equipment (and very understanding neighbours). It has prompted me to listen to my favourite John Adams CDs all over again.