There’s a rather oversized hint of an elephant in the room in the fanciful cover art for the world premiere recording of Absolute Jest by John Adams. His name is Ludwig van Beethoven.
Recorded live at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in 2013, Absolute Jest, written in 2012, features the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The second piece, Grand Pianola Music, from 1982, was conducted by Adams himself earlier this year. Both are fascinating examples of a contemporary artist’s absorption of classical themes into a modern vernacular that is imaginative, witty – and original.
Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his On the Transmigration of Souls about the 9/11 attacks, and whose Harmonielehre is considered by many as a masterpiece of Minimalism, has been ranked among the world’s most performed living composers. In the liner notes for the CD, classical music author Larry Rothe writes that Adams has “long been obsessed with Beethoven” and that “Adams is drawn especially to what he calls Beethoven’s wit and ‘ecstatic energy’ – the kind of generative pulse he pursues in his own music.”
Absolute Jest was created as a 25-minute scherzo – it should be noted that in Italian, the word literally means “joke” – and according to Adams, for Beethoven “a scherzo is this inspired sense of movement and happiness.” The piece itself begins on a rather otherworldly note of expectation before segueing into a seamlessly dynamic interplay between orchestra and string quartet – a mix that’s a “risky proposition,” the composer has commented. But it’s a sonic dance that definitely pays off here. Echoes of the late Beethoven string quartets, the “Waldstein” Sonata, and especially Symphonies 7 and 9, are interwoven with Adams’ signature driven style, particularly in the whirlwind coda, bursting with the “ecstatic energy” that Adams has always sensed in Beethoven’s music.
Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have shared a long history with Adams, and Grand Pianola Music, the second work on this recording, was commissioned in the early 1980s. Featuring members of Synergy Vocals and the dual pianos of Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin, Pianola is a mélange of brash touches, ranging from the volcanic piano arpeggios that recall Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, to the intentionally kitschy melody that overshadows the third movement, which is titled “On the Dominant Divide.” The latter is so named because “it rocks back and forth between tonic and dominant,” according to the composer.
As with the seminal work Harmonielehre, Grand Pianola Music also had its inception in a phantasmagoric dream – this one of huge Steinway pianos “screaming down the highway at 90 mph, [giving off] volleys of B-flat- and E-flat-major arpeggios,” as Adams describes it. Its audaciousness was not well-received at the time, but Grand Pianola Music has since become one of the most popular works from Adams’s early period.
“Another rite of passage that one must endure, if you’re to be a ‘classical’ composer, is to share the bed with one of the large guys,” Adams once wrote. In Absolute Jest, as well as Grand Pianola Music, he shares it with one of the biggest of them all. No doubt the great one himself would approve.