CD Review: John Adams, “The Dharma at Big Sur/ My Father Knew Charles Ives”

4 Stars

As winter approaches, Harvard’s biggest flaw becomes more and more apparent: it isn’t in Palo Alto. No one who has weathered a Cambridge winter would wonder why composer John C. Adams ’69 would relocate to California immediately after finishing his degree. What is surprising is how the transplanted New Englander has taken to his new home: with his latest release, the famed composer produces a tribute to the state worthy of a native son.

In what may be Adams’ best composition of the past ten years, “The Dharma at Big Sur” is a 27-minute concerto for electric violin and orchestra that makes up the first half of his new double-disc release. Adams writes of the piece: “[It] express[es] the ‘shock of recognition’” of arriving and experiencing the magnificent Pacific coastline for the first time.

From beginning to end, the piece exudes tropical colors from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and sweeping lines on the solo six-string electric violin. Violinist Tracy Silverman’s playing is lush, velvety and a bit mischievous—which is perfectly suited for this piece. In “A New Day,” the first of two movements, Silverman plays a continuous, floating 14-minute melody over the ever-changing textures of the orchestra.

The violin writing abounds with expressive portamentos and sliding glissandos, often evoking both traditional Asian music as well as the Blues. It’s easy to become indulgent and overly sentimental when playing music like this, but Silverman never succumbs to that level. Instead, he plays with grace and restraint, making the occasional outburst even more ecstatic and satisfying for the listener.

Silverman plays a much more rhythmic and syncopated line in the second movement, “Sri Moonshine.” The jazzy and chromatic melody plays in rhythmic counterpoint with the piano, harp, percussion, and brass—instruments retuned for the piece using a system that is alien to most listeners. As a result, the amplified violin combines with the orchestra to create weird, exotic, and intoxicating harmonies.

One might think that after such an endearing tribute to California, Adams has all but forgotten his native East Coast. Yet the second piece on the album is “My Father Knew Charles Ives,” a musical memoir of sorts, recalling his youth in New England. The first movement, “Concord,” opens with a quizzical yet plaintive trumpet solo in a tribute to fellow New England composer Charles Ives. The mood becomes increasingly raucous and festive later on as the orchestra imitates marching bands through familiar-sounding (yet completely original) tunes that Adams has concocted.

The remaining two movements, “The Lake” and “The Mountain,” are more conventional musical paintings of landscape. The music here is generic and forgettable. In fact, in “The Mountain,” with its repetitive ostinatos and zigzagging string lines occasionally punctuated with brass and bells, sounds awfully like a recycling of Adams’ earlier post-minimalist works like “Harmonielehre” and “Naïve and Sentimental Music.”

Last year, Adams had the country abuzz with the premiere of “Doctor Atomic,” his opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer ’25 and the morality behind weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, he came under national spotlight when the New York Philharmonic asked him to write a memorial piece for Sept. 11 in 2002. He snagged the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music for that piece.

While the two works on this album do not have the overt political significance of his Pulitzer Prize-winning, 9/11-themed “On the Transmigration of Souls,” they are nonetheless important additions to the repertory of American classical music. Though “My Father Knew Charles Ives” has its flaws, the beauty and cathartic quality of “The Dharma at Big Sur” more than redeem this release. Adams has done for the Pacific landscape with this piece what Aaron Copland did for Appalachia with his ballet music. Whether you’re a classical music fan or not, this album is not one to be missed.