American Mavericks #9: John Adams Conducts Own Works

Versatile composer leads New World Symphony in Shaker Loops and Grand Pianola Music.

What's green and white and moves with the spirit of a cheerleader? John Adams conducting his own music.

Sporting a white suit and bright emerald shirt, the sprightly and charismatic Adams took the podium at Wednesday night's American Mavericks concert and energetically led members of Michael Tilson Thomas' Miami-based New World Symphony in inspired

performances of two of his own early works, as well as in orchestral pieces by Conlon Nancarrow and avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa.

For sheer quality of performance, it's hard to compete with composers conducting their own works, with recordings by Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez of their own music easily being some of the best around. And while there may be more of a tendency toward self-indulgence in such performances — Bernstein, for one, comes to mind — there is no one better than the composer for understanding his work's tempi, dynamics and musical phrasing.

And, perhaps most important, he gets his own jokes.

Puns And Irony

Like Stravinsky, Adams has a keen appreciation of irony and delights in clever musical puns. Also like Stravinsky, Adams composes music that's filled with complex ideas and stylistic shifts that nonetheless remains accessible.

These traits are evident in Grand Pianola Music, a work that hasn't been performed at the San Francisco Symphony since its world premiere in 1982, when the Berkeley-based Adams was new-music adviser for the orchestra, prior to becoming its first composer-in-residence.

Grand Pianola caused some consternation and confusion among Adams' musical colleagues at its debut, and it's easy to see why. Based on a dream the composer had — about driving down Interstate 5 and being approached by two incredibly long, sleek black limousines that transform into 50-foot-long Steinway pianos — the piece starts out as a seemingly modernist composition, with dueling pianos and a small ensemble of percussion, wind, brass and singers moving through a series of undulating minimalist modulations.

But suddenly a bass drum thunders or a tuba playfully yawps, and the cool modernist mood is quickly lost.

Grand Pianola's finale is especially surprising, featuring a shameless, almost gaudy tunefulness, which at its premiere was seen by many as a retreat from, and statement against, modernism. But mostly it's just Adams' playfulness coming to the fore, and if in any way a commentary, it is meant only as a good-natured one.

Shaker Loops is less playful in tone but no less complex a work. Written solely for strings, this piece also has its basis in minimalist techniques, using tiny melodic fragments that loop around themselves repeatedly. And yet the work is never really episodic. Instead, as in Grand Pianola, there are unpredictable, almost violent shifts in mood, almost Hitchcockian buildups of dramatic tension followed by sudden release.

Perhaps the best description of the experience comes from director Peter Sellars, who worked with Adams on his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer: "You could feel the fantastic way in which the sense of drama was heightened in the entire room, and you could feel the music move in these waves of energy that just began to break, and the waves got larger and larger and larger, and you knew you were in the presence of a dramatic composer."

Closer Look At Nancarrow, Zappa

To round out the program, Adams presented a brief study by Nancarrow. A curious composer who was fascinated by complex notions of polytemporality, Nancarrow wrote virtually all of his musical output for the player piano, believing that no human performer in the 1940s and '50s could possibly realize the extreme precision that his music required.

By the 1990s, however, skills among performers had evolved dramatically, and pianist Yvar Mikhashoff got Nancarrow's approval to orchestrate some of his studies, of which Study No. 6 is one. It is a charming little work, one of the few pieces by Nancarrow that is gentle and lyrical.

The revolutionary new-music vision of Zappa, meanwhile, brought a strong sense of parody and satire to his compositions, be it manifest as a rock record or an orchestral work. Dupree's Paradise is one of two compositions that Zappa created in the 1980s, during a brief collaboration with Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Dancing between passages of dense, tonally ambivalent material and '50s sitcom cheerfulness, it is a piece that rapturously revels in its own irony. Like Adams, Zappa understood just how emotionally dynamic and flat-out fun making music can be.