Classical CD Reviews

JOHN ADAMS: The Dharma at Big Sur – Tracy Silverman, electric violin/BBC Symphony orchestra/John Adams; My Father Knew Charles Ives – BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adams – Nonesuch

Separate short CDs for each new work

Published on October 15, 2006

JOHN ADAMS: The Dharma at Big Sur – Tracy Silverman, electric violin/BBC Symphony orchestra/John Adams;  My Father Knew Charles Ives – BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adams – Nonesuch
JOHN ADAMS: The Dharma at Big Sur – Tracy Silverman, electric violin/BBC Symphony orchestra/John Adams;  My Father Knew Charles Ives – BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adams – Nonesuch 79857-2 (2 discs) 26:50, 26:39 ****:

Though both of Adams’ latest works are just a hair over 26 minutes length, they are given their own separate CDs in this package and the front and back sides of the package are different – each titled with a different one of the two compositions. There was another double CD lately with only three minutes on the second CD though plenty of time remained on the first CD. There must be something I’m missing in this logic. I’m not certain, but I presume these two CDs are priced at the single-CD rate.

The Dharma at Big Sur was originally conceived by Adams as an orchestral work featuring an actor declaiming some of the writings of Jack Kerouac about Buddhism and the environment of the wild Big Sur coast of central California. But he became captivated by the performing style of electric violinist Silverman, which he compares to the great Pakistani folk music improvising violinists.  He equates the approach to that of Kerouac, influenced by the rhythms and melodic improvisations of American jazz. Adams’ concerto for electric violin and orchestra was the result. Its first movement – A New Day – is dedicated to composer friend Lou Harrison, and the second half – Sri Moonshine – is for minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, who is among other things trained in East Indian raga singing and playing. The violin plays a jazz-infused melody and the climax of the work builds and builds, seemingly forever, to a hugely ecstatic orchestral finish which leaves the listener wrung out.

Adam’s reveals in his notes that his father – who was, like Ives, a businessman by day and musician by night – actually didn’t meet Charles Ives, but that they were both Yankees and probably would have become good friends. The three-movement work is a tribute to the devil-may-care mixups of folk music, hymn tunes, marches and what have you which Ives conjured up in this works. The philosophy of the New England Transcendentalists was important to both Ives and Adams’ father, and is reflected in the titles of the work’s section: Concord, The Lake, and The Mountain. Concord is extremely atmospheric and impressionistic, with a section being Adams’ version of Ives’ famous “The Unanswered Question” for trumpet floating over the orchestral background.  The Lake is a nocturne evoking among other things the distant sounds of a band playing at the dance hall across the water – similar to the band in which Adams’ father played. The closing section is full of massive atonal sounds that reminded me more of Carl Ruggles than Ives.

- John Sunier




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