When John Adams wrote Harmonielehre in 1985, he was coming out of a prolonged spell of writer’s block to issue a piercing cry of defiance to the musical establishment and its insistence that Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition method was the one true faith. Here was a work of full symphonic length which was blatantly not 12-tone and yet could in no way be accused of being a throwback to the Romantic era, while clearly avoiding the ugliness of much atonal music and being – yes, accessible. And to top it all, Adams had sarcastically chosen to name his composition after a treatise on harmony written by Schoenberg himself in 1911 (as it happens, shortly before Schoenberg abandoned most of its precepts).

Yo-Yo Ma, Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
Yo-Yo Ma, Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Harmonielehre is a thoroughly enjoyable and varied work, from start to finish. The beginning is a big statement of the repeated chord patterns characteristic of minimalism, but we rapidly move into calmer waters: the rhythmic impulse continues, but other music floats over the top, whether fanfares, quirky woodwind quotes or more evanescent string lines.

Under the baton of Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic went for broke in the opening bars. This is an orchestra that can produce a huge sound and they succeeded in thrilling with those massive fanfares, followed by which the propulsive drive from cellos and basses was unflagging (the constantly shifting rhythms of the work are fascinating to the point that I would happily call it Rhythmuslehre rather than Harmonielehre). But the sound was too big for the Barbican – a somewhat smaller hall than the NY Phil’s usual haunt – and there was a lack of dynamic contrast. The beauty of Harmonielehre is in its rapid mood shifts from intense to ethereal to quirky, both in the overall three movement structure and in subsections of each movement (the second movement evokes Anfortas’ wound, the third, “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie”, portrays a dream of Adams’ baby daughter flying in space in the arms of a medieval mystic). I was impressed by the orchestra as a powerhouse, especially in the ending of the whole work, but there was a level of dreaminess, of sweetness, of rapture that was missing from the intervening passages. I don’t think I’ve ever heard high harmonics in the strings played so loud.

There was a similar pattern for the opening work of the concert, The Chairman Dances (which Adams describes as an “out-take” from his opera Nixon in China). The minimalist trademark of repeated figures in the cellos and basses made a powerful effect, but when the time came for Jiang Qing (who was a former movie starlet) to drag Mao onto the dance floor, the NY Phil didn’t seem able to switch the mood into the kitsch sentimentality of the couple's nostalgic dreams of 1930s Yan’an.

Yo-Yo Ma © Chris Lee
Yo-Yo Ma
© Chris Lee

In between the two Adams works was the eagerly awaited arrival of Yo-Yo Ma to perform the European première of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new Cello concerto. Salonen admits that knowing that the work would be played by Ma had the effect of removing all constraints as regards degree-of-difficulty for the soloist, and the virtuosity required is nothing short of fiendish in all sorts of aspects. As was to be expected, Ma dealt with it all with aplomb, seeming utterly unfazed either by the high-speed gymnastics or the impossibly high harmonics demanded of him.

But this wasn’t just about virtuosity: Salonen is a highly cerebral composer who is continually taking you in unexpected directions. Like Harmonielehre, there is much variety within each movement, contained within an overarching three movement structure: the first is an Also sprach Zarathustra inspired image of man emerging from the primordial soup; the second contains ethereal music of the spheres; the third is more powerful and down to earth. Perhaps the loveliest is the second movement, in which the solo cello is played through an electronic delay, allowing the cellist to play in harmony with himself; the most unusual is a duet between cello and congas in the third, then joined by other percussion and pizzicato violin, then become more manic as the conga player switches to maracas and flexatone. Salonen certainly knows how to write both a long-breathed cantabile and a knock-your-socks-off climax.

I have a strong impression that this is a concerto that needs repeated listenings: there’s so much material and so much variety of soundscape that it’s hard to take it all in on a first hearing. I hope that other cellists will take up the challenge.