Orchestra and Laptop on a Voyage of Discovery

Sep 30, 2012

The New York Times
by Anthony Tommasini

San Francisco Symphony Plays Mahler and Samuel Carl Adams

SAN FRANCISCO — The composer Samuel Carl Adams said, not really joking, that the San Francisco Symphony is “partially responsible for my existence.” His parents — the composer John Adams and the photographer Deborah O’Grady — met while working at the orchestra. More recently the younger Mr. Adams, 26, has been living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he pursues his wide-ranging interests, including playing bass in new-music groups and creating sound designs for multimedia works.

He returned to his hometown on Friday night, when the San Francisco Symphony, at Davies Symphony Hall, gave the West Coast premiere of his orchestral work “Drift and Providence,” conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in a program dominated by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Mr. Adams’s atmospheric, inventively orchestrated 20-minute piece, which Mr. Thomas described to the audience as a “voyage of discovery in sound,” was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, where Mr. Thomas conducted the premiere in April. (He will perform the work in a program at Carnegie Hall on March 20.)

That Mr. Adams’s father is a major American composer has surely given him some entry into the professional music world. On the other hand, emerging from the shadow of a famous parent cannot be easy.

The younger Mr. Adams followed his own path from his high school days, when he played bass in jazz bands, to his undergraduate years at Stanford, where he studied Japanese and computer science along with music. The strongest quality of “Drift and Providence,” a moody, dark piece of subdued intensity, is that it comes across as the music of a composer with a personal voice and keen imagination.

It is structured in five sections around what Mr. Adams calls three “imagined places,” though two are familiar to San Franciscans: “Embarcadero,” a neighborhood, and “Divisadero,” a street. Two connective sections are titled “Drift I” and “Drift II.” The piece concludes with “Providence,” which in this context seems to represent a state of well-being rather than the capital of Rhode Island. But the music unfolds continuously and organically.

The titles would suggest that evoking water, mists and the drifting currents of life is the driving idea of the piece. In the opening section, “Embarcadero,” the brass players exhale through their instruments to create an ethereal whoosh jabbed by quiet bursts of color from the percussion. Another special effect comes from strange steely noise created by the scraping of cowbells and brake drums. But many of these sounds are electronically enhanced by a laptop computer that Mr. Adams controlled.

From the start, sections of the orchestra, especially the strings, play undulating, lapping motifs that murmur and bustle, as if rhythmic riffs and whole themes were trying to coalesce into forms more concrete. Eventually short, abrupt phrases break out into passages that sound like fractured jazz piercing through fog. My patience for the instrumental atmospherics would have been tried had Mr. Adams not kept hooking me with the precision of the pungent harmonic writing and the sweeping arc of the whole piece, which is filled with dramatic pauses when everything stops for a moment of silence. Mr. Thomas and the San Francisco players gave a vividly colored, taut and organic performance.

That the Mahler Fifth, after intermission, was so accomplished was no surprise. Mr. Thomas and his players have made Mahler a specialty. Their recordings of the complete symphonies and the song cycles for orchestra, taken from live performances over the last decade, have received seven Grammy Awards and were released as a boxed CD set last year.

As a Mahler conductor Mr. Thomas has dramatic flair and deep feeling for the cultural and stylistic background of Mahler’s music. Yet his performances are models of cleareyed musicianship and textual transparency. So it was with this excellent Mahler Fifth.

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