John Adams Century Rolls




January 11, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

John Adams

Century Rolls; Lollapalooza; Slonimsky's Earbox. Emanuel Ax, pianist; Cleveland Orchestra; Halle Orchestra; Christoph von Dohnanyi and Kent Nagano, conductors. (Nonesuch 79607-2)

Back in the 1970s and early '80s, when minimalism really started making waves, many a sage predicted that the persistent repetition of small melodic motives, simple chords and propulsive rhythm patterns that characterized this musical style would soon fade away. It couldn't possibly last, or be taken seriously.

Well, as the 21st century begins, the triumvirate of minimalist composers - Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams -is still going strong. Adams, in particular, just keeps getting more and more interesting, keeps delving deeper into expressive possibilities.

His musical evolution, a gradual and fascinating thing to hear over the decades, has given minimalism a richer, wider dimension. Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a true minimalist to write anything as, well, un-minimalistic as the middle movement of "Century Rolls," his 1996 piano concerto making a sensational debut on this recording. The movement is a sweet and subtle update of Erik Satie's gentle "Gymnopedies" from the 1880s.

The very opening of the concerto may be typically Adams - twittery riffs from strings and winds, propelled by quintessentially minimalist motor rhythms. But by the time the piano enters, with a bold, spiky identity and playing off brassy, punchy outbursts from the orchestra, we are heading into fresh territory. And the finale, with its striking allusions to classic jazz, likewise sounds quite new, invigorating, inventive.

Throughout "Century Rolls" (the title refers to mechanical piano rolls), the sophistication of Adams' ideas and the brilliant way he organizes and develops them create a major addition to the repertoire for keyboard and orchestra. Emanuel Ax jumps into the solo part with terrific energy and character. The Cleveland Orchestra, under the careful guidance of Christoph von Dohnanyi, also excels. It's a taut, arresting performance.

The disc is filled out with two contemporaneous scores, the hard-driving orchestra showpiece "Lollapalooza" and "Slonimsky's Earbox," a colorful, multidimensional tribute to the late, genius-level musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky. Kent Nagano leads assured, crisp accounts of both works with the Halle Orchestra.

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African Heritage

African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. 1. Works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still and Fela Sowande. Chicago Sinfonietta; Paul Freeman, conductor. (Cedille Records 90000 055)

Back in the 1970s, CBS Records produced an ear-opening series of LPs devoted to works by black classical composers from this country and abroad, and from several different eras. The artistic director and main conductor of that project was Paul Freeman, who is also at the helm for a similar new venture launched by Chicago-based Cedille Records.

The first volume is devoted to two of the best-known black composers of the past 100 years or so - African-English Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and African-American William Grant Still - and Nigerian-born Fela Sowande.

Still's 1930 Symphony No. 1, titled "Afro-American," remains an important achievement. The composer's fusion of stylistic elements from blues and jazz and his imaginative way of giving them a symphonic coating make a consistently engaging statement.

Coleridge-Taylor's gifts for infectious melody and prismatic orchestration are readily apparent in the 1910 "Petite Suite de Concert" and "Danse Negre" from the 1898 "African Suite." This is "light" music of high quality, the sort that understandably delighted Victorian and Edwardian listeners and should be much better known in this country.

The Nigerian roots of the 1930 "African Suite" by Sowande are heavily filtered and prettified; the "Nostalgia" movement excerpted here sounds rather like Vaughan Williams. But the romantic, assured style of the music has an immediate appeal, as does the rhythmic animation of "Joyful Day" and "Akinla."

If the Chicago Sinfonietta could use a little more technical refinement here and there, the ensemble responds to Freeman's enthusiastic conducting with admirable commitment and, especially in the Still symphony, dramatic flair.

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Claude Debussy

"Debussy Rediscovered," Premiere Orchestral Recordings. San Francisco Ballet Orchestra; Emil de Cou, conductor. (Arabesque Z6734)

It may seem strange to find a Debussy disc boasting "premiere orchestral recordings" at this late date in the history of recording. As it turns out, none of the items was actually orchestrated by the composer, but that little technicality in no way diminishes the value of this beguiling release.

Debussy did not write prolifically for orchestra; his reputation in this field rests on just a handful of works. What conductor Emil de Cou does here is find a way to add to that legacy, with all due respect to Debussy's style and intentions.

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