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Updated Friday, November 9, 2012 at 02:37 PM

John Adams, Jonathan Biss and Symphony have a stellar night

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

Benaroya Hall achieved giddy orchestral liftoff Thursday night with two mighty works, both conjured up with grandeur and precision by composer-conductor John Adams and the Seattle Symphony.

The first was Adams' own 1985 symphonic work, "Harmonielehre." The second was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major ("Emperor"), with Jonathan Biss as soloist.

In a short talk before the program, Adams recalled seeing Aaron Copland conduct "Appalachian Spring" at Tanglewood as a boy and later hearing Leonard Bernstein lead orchestras through his own work. Composer-conductors aren't as common these days, he acknowledged.

"That's too bad," he said, explaining that one great advantage to a composer conducting his own music is that it allows him "to continue to work with the piece and be spontaneous with it."

About to launch into "Harmonielehre," the 65-year-old composer soulfully remarked, "Even though it's the work of a young man, I — as an old man — still love to do it."

That "old man" then bobbed, spry and skinny as a teenager, to a pulsing beat on the podium for the next 40 minutes, as he teased each rhythmic shift and sonic transformation out of his lavish score.

"Harmonielehre" is unusual in taking the architectural sweep of European composers like Mahler and Sibelius and, in Adams' words, "marrying it to American minimalism." Divided into three movements that you could characterize as tempestuous, mournful-meditative and celestial, it's vast and arching in structure. A steady pulse is almost always thrumming somewhere in the orchestra, lending the piece a surging momentum. But over that pulse, all sorts of other rhythms and sounds hitch a ride.

Adams is a wizardly orchestrator, blending instruments in combinations that leave you uncertain where to look for the player. Is that "theremin" sound coming from a piccolo backed by faint woodwinds? No, it's the violinists, doing something quite ethereal with their strings.

Some players — trumpeter David Gordon, percussionist Michael A. Werner on marimba — had striking solo moments. But the work is conceived for the whole orchestra to speak as a single voice, whether roaring or whispering. It won whoops of appreciation and a standing ovation in return.

"Emperor" uses a much smaller ensemble than "Harmonielehre," but Adams knew exactly what he wanted out of it. Smiling and nodding enthusiastically when certain passages came off with just the right punch or swaggering élan, he seemed to be having huge fun.

He was in beautiful sync with pianist Biss, whose chiming, murmuring, silken keyboard sound in quieter passages was matched by dramatic percussive moments elsewhere. In the central slow movement, Biss and Adams were in especially fine tune, finding a delicate elasticity in the music, letting it sigh, stretch, pause and take another step, without ever losing shape or focus.

Another standing ovation — richly deserved — closed the night.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

John Adams, conductor, and Jonathan Biss, piano, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $19-$112 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).


COURTESY CARNEGIE HALL / JENNIFER TAYLOR
Composer John Adams




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