American composer and conductor John Adams’ appearance at Prague Spring this year marked not only his debut at the festival but first-ever visit to the Czech Republic, an omission that he seemed slightly embarrassed about in a pre-concert talk. He knew Janáček, but not Martinů. No matter. A rapt audience hung on every word of his talk and then every note of his performance with the Czech Philharmonic, an orchestra not known for its facility with contemporary repertoire. 

John Adams conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Pražské Jaro | Prague Spring Festival 2023 | Petra Hajská

Adams had spent three days in rehearsals with the orchestra, and it showed in the centerpiece of the program, his whimsically titled piano concerto Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? In this Adams had stellar support from Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who has become a proponent for the piece, performing it regularly in Europe and the US. It calls for not only virtuoso skills at the keyboard but fluency in a wide range of styles, with influences as diverse as boogie-woogie and jazz. Ólafsson attacked the piece with sharp staccato bursts that matched the intensity of the orchestra, then showed a lighter, lyrical side in a second movement that was at times mesmerizing. The ferocious finale teetered on the edge of flying apart, which was to the credit of both Adams and Ólafsson, who kept the spirit of wild abandon while maintaining tight control over the sudden breaks and slashing rhythms.

It was a nice recovery from the opening piece, I Still Dance, an extended arpeggio written as an orchestral showpiece. The work depends heavily on rhythms that the orchestra quite frankly did not get. It chugged along without ever coalescing, ambitious but unrealized. And there was a notable lack of clarity in the sound, which seemed at least partly due to the nimble demands the piece makes on a large symphony orchestra.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Pražské Jaro | Prague Spring Festival 2023 | Petra Hajská

But the full orchestra had no such problems with Gabriella Smith’s challenging Tumblebird Contrails. Smith is a young American composer and a favorite of Adams, who has championed Tumblebird by leading numerous performances in the US. The piece evokes the wonders of the natural world with aural images of the forest and skies and seashore, and the sounds of birds and waves. Under Adams’ baton, the brass in particular did a superb job of creating unusual sonorities and the percussion section provided a pulsating bottom. As a fellow Californian, Adams has a natural feel and appreciation for the landscapes Smith portrays, and in his reading expansive vistas unfolded in rich textures and colors with a beguiling sense of discovery.

The concert closed with a personal favorite, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Early in his career Adams embraced Stravinsky as a welcome alternative to what he saw as the increasing inaccessibility of contemporary music, and as this piece showed, he has never lost that enthusiasm. In his hands it was bright, ebullient and optimistic, despite the subject matter (the piece was written during and inspired by World War 2). Stravinsky is also much closer to the orchestra’s normal repertoire, which made for the sharpest performance of the evening, with the musicians responsive to every fine detail and nuance Adams drew out of a work that he knows very well. The melodic flow was irresistible and the sound fresh and vibrant. 

John Adams and the Czech Philharmonic
© Pražské Jaro | Prague Spring Festival 2023 | Petra Hajská

As an offstage footnote, it was remarkable to see the audience that Adams attracted. Musicians, composers, musicologists, critics, arts managers, modern music devotees – the entire spectrum of the local music community turned out for the concert. And there wasn’t enough room for all the people who wanted to attend the pre-concert talk. It’s hard to recall another artist who generated that level of interest, much less from such a broad cross-section of fans. Even in conservative Prague, contemporary music thrives.