Absolute Jest sounds like perfect fare for an April Fool's Day concert. John Adams quotes Beethoven in many guises in his jolly work for string quartet and orchestra. There are scherzo snippets from a couple of the late string quartets, Op.131 and Op.135, helpfully illustrated by the string soloists in Alan Gilbert's genial introduction to Day 2 of the New York Philharmonic's Barbican residency. Adams also raids the symphonies. The rat-a-tat three note motto that opens the scherzo from the Ninth punctuates much of the opening movement. The jokey Eighth pokes its head round the corner as well.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform <i>Absolute Jest</i> © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform Absolute Jest
© Chris Lee

There's plenty to tickle the ear in Absolute Jest. Adams uses a Beethovenian-sized orchestra, with the addition of harp, celesta and piano which create a rippling haze from which themes gradually emerge. Formed from the New York Phil's principals, the string quartet performed standing in front of Gilbert's rostrum, apart from Carter Brey who was seated on a dais so he was at the same 'head height' as his colleagues. This platform arrangement partly had the effect of hiding the quartet behind the conductor, although it enhanced the feeling that their playing emerged from the orchestral texture. The quartet's playing was energetic, subtly amplified to do battle with the band. Gilbert propelled this zestful “homage” along with gusto. Adams keeps the foot on the accelerator until it suddenly dissipates, ending on a ghostly piano wisp floating off into the ether.

Adams has described the work as “a colossal scherzo”... and that's my problem with the piece. At around 25 minutes, it feels a little too long for its material. Musically, it's upbeat and fun from a “Spot the quote” perspective, but jokes – especially on 1st April – can wear a little thin on repetition. There's a pithier one-liner lurking within.

Alan Gilbert departs from the New York Philharmonic as Music Director at the end of the current season. His tenure has seemed a little lacking in excitement, a feeling borne out by a reading of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique whose first three movements were distinctly soporific. The New York violins produced a big, silky sound, Brahmsian in sheen, but the lack of impetus in the opening movement was disappointing, waylaid by Gilbert's lack of baton clarity. The Ball scene was slick, the Scene in the Fields somnolent. The exception was Anthony McGill who conjured up an element of fantasy in his reminiscence of the idée fixe theme.

Things picked up – noticeably the tempi – in the last two movements. Timpani playing with hard-headed sticks injected drive into the March to the Scaffold, while the mighty bell in the Witches' Sabbath sounded a dead ringer for Big Ben – a pity we were spared the sense of theatre by having it played off-stage. One of Gilbert's predecessors as music director – the late, great Leonard Bernstein – summed up the Symphonie fantastique perfectly: “You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” Gilbert preferred decibels over devilry, brass and percussion blasting their way through the finale, obliterating the ghoulish woodwind cackles (a drawback of not having the players on risers).

Ironically, the most characterful playing came in the encore, a spirited rendition of the Rákóczy March from The Damnation of Faust – more Berlioz, more devilry, but this time with a whiff of menace.