On Wednesday night, a group of young artists coached by John Adams and David Robertson warmed up on the stage of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. The snatches of the music we were about to hear – from cinematic melodies to jaunty dance-like snippets – jumbled together as one usually expects of a warm-up. But the mishmash of pitches and textures served as a sort of Cagean preface to the performance, which featured works by 20th-century American composers.

John Adams © Margaretta Mitchell
John Adams
© Margaretta Mitchell

Steven Mackey’s Ground Swell, composed in 2007, is a very visual work consisting of seven fairly short movements that correspond with each other in a symmetrical structure. The opening phrases of “Approach by Sea”, the first movement, unravelled like threads and then weaved over and under each other, occasionally in unison and occasionally sounding in scattered echoes. The solo violist, Amanda Verner, sailed through swirling sea-like sections; she then galloped across the hilly topographies of the five middle movements. During the central movement, “Peak Experience”, the instruments pranced through light tiptoeing footwork with occasional discordant splats and lolling harmonies. The next section was more melancholy, with conductor Karina Canellakis dragging the music across Mr Mackey’s terrain as questioning phrases were plaintively reiterated but never answered. These ascending intervals were swept away during the descending gestures and carefree energy of “Running Downhill”. Here, the music tumbled from dissonance to consonance and back again. The work began and ended with the sea: the final movement, entitled “Sailing Away”, mirrored the first movement’s overlapping ripples of sound.

John Adams introduced the second movement of his 1996 composition Gnarly Buttons as a “dedication to British beef” but also discussed the more serious aspects of the piece, such as its association to his father via the solo part for clarinet. The three sections of the work are each based on fabricated tunes, à la Stravinsky or Bartók. The first movement explores a folk tune first played by the soloist, performed Wednesday night by Vicente Alexim Nunes da Silva. Gradually the clarinet is joined by other instruments, including a banjo and a “fake accordion” produced by a synthesizer with pre-recorded sounds. Eventually the tune evolves and accelerates into a motoric, frenzied build-up of sound, breaking off into the painful scratching of a violin and then – nothing. Mr Adams’ “dedication to beef”, formally titled “Hoedown (Mad Cow)”, features jovial rhythms that skip and saunter along and are suddenly interrupted by a loud “Moo” from the synthesizer. The musicians were led through the lollygagging hilarity by conductor Gemma New, who shifted gears skilfully during the work, which Mr Adams explained was considered “almost unplayable” when it was first written. The final movement, which he described as a “Joni Mitchell-style pop song”, began with sweet piano chords and a sweet clarinet melody. The twanging banjo was traded for an acoustic guitar, and the chugging melodies, with the double bass humming beneath, concluded with a thoughtful ending.

David Robertson introduced the final work on the program: Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto, which, like Gnarly Buttons, was considered nearly impossible when it premièred in 1961. The concerto is scored for two small orchestras, each led by a soloist: the first by a harpsichord and the second by a piano. Initially separated only spatially, the groups wend their way together through Carter’s humor, emotion, and meticulous sounds. Despite the fact that the notes seem scattered and strewn randomly across each other, each ensemble adheres to a set of melodic motifs and intervals and polyrhythms. The contrast of the tinkling harpsichord with the rumbling piano on the opposite side of the stage is juxtaposed against a backdrop of pitter-pattering from the winds and percussion. Towards the end, the music explodes and disintegrates as the two orchestras launch into differing meters; conductor Yuga Cohler was joined by Karina Canellakis, who led the harpsichord’s ensemble until the abrupt ending.

It’s a testament to the virtuosity of the young musicians that they were able to fluidly pull off musical compositions originally deemed physically impossible, but it’s also indicative of the necessary exploration of uncharted “soundscapes”. Thanks to figures like Mr Adams and Mr Robertson, the importance of modern and sometimes “unpleasant” or even “vernacular” sounds will not get lost or stagnate. With the knowledge that what is today unplayable may be playable tomorrow, or next year, we can continue pushing past borders into new territory.

***11