John Adams' 1992 Chamber Symphony, which opens this week's program by Edo de Waart and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, is a remarkable affair, at once erudite and entertaining.
Full of what its composer called "unreasonably difficult passages and alarmingly fast tempi," it draws on sources as disparate as Schoenberg (his own Chamber Symphony, Op. 9) and classic cartoon scores.
De Waart, one of Adams' earliest and staunchest advocates, leads a knowing performance; the SPCO plays with characteristic panache. (I could feel the energy of their counting in row T.)
Yet on Thursday evening, Adams' head-filling concoction, antic and sometimes frantic, just wasn't the music I wanted to hear. Preoccupied with the news from Japan and with the suffering of the Japanese, I needed something less hectic, more reflective. Something by Arvo Pärt, perhaps, or the late Henryk Gorecki, or the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu -- music that spoke more directly to the moment. I wished the program had been modified accordingly.
I admit the unreasonableness of my position, and the validity of the obvious objections. My sense of the moment is hardly universal. Orchestral concerts are intricate machines; they have too many moving parts to be dismantled and reassembled at the last minute. The old "show-must-go-on" tradition deserves respect. And there's always a crisis somewhere.
Still, shouldn't we always be looking for ways to bring our musical life into closer alignment with the world beyond the concert hall -- ways to give voice to our collective experience? A famous (and probably unrepeatable) instance of this comes to mind: In 1936, Paul Hindemith's "Funeral Music," an eight-minute elegy for solo viola and string orchestra, was written, copied, rehearsed and premiered in a single day, immediately following the death of Britain's King George V. The work is one of Hindemith's best.
Curiously, Thursday's program offered an earlier work by Hindemith (himself a virtuoso violist) for viola and idiosyncratic ensemble: his neo-baroque Kammermusik No. 5, with SPCO principal Sabina Thatcher the rich-toned soloist. If the busy outer movements sounded too much like Adams, the melancholy slow movement, beautifully shaped, gave me, at last, the breathing room I craved.
A piece dedicated to Queen Victoria has a strike against it. Maybe two. Even so, Mendelssohn's songful "Scottish" Symphony is arguably the finest of his five. De Waart's vigorous reading, slightly muddied by the Ordway's acoustics, would have gained from quieter playing in the wonderful Adagio.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.