Every year, the Orquesta Nacional de España schedules the so-called “Carta Blanca”, a group of events dedicated to a single composer. On this occasion, Carta Blanca focuses on John Adams, protagonist of concerts, conferences, and film exhibitions that are taking place at the Auditorio Nacional, as well as in other cultural institutions such as the Fundación Juan March, the Filmoteca Nacional, or the Residencia de estudiantes.

Attaca Quartet © The Attaca Quartet | New York City String Quartet
Attaca Quartet
© The Attaca Quartet | New York City String Quartet

The composer had chosen three pieces for string quartet as a representation of his chamber music in this festival: John’s Book of Alleged Dances, Shaker Loops and String Quartet. Nonetheless, there were last minute changes. When the concert was about to start, Adams –who is fluent in Spanish – addressed the auditorium and explained that he couldn’t conduct the piece he was supposed to (Shaker Loops), as it entailed a very aerobic performance (his own words) and he was suffering from chest congestion. Therefore, it had to be replaced by Beethoven’s Quartet Op.18 no.1.

The performers of Mr. Adams’ string music were the members of Attacca Quartet. Adams met this young ensemble, comprised of violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, viola player Luke Fleming, and cellist Andrew Yee, in New York two years ago. Since then, they have become the “authorized voice” of Adams’ string music, recording the complete string quartet works of the American composer.

If postmodern music does exist, then John’s Book of Alleged Dances is its paradigm. Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1994, this bright work is written for string quartet plus pre-recorded sounds. It is conceived as a collection of dances, some of them based on traditional rhythms, which Adams re-composes to create astonishing and vibrant miniatures that describe a wide diversity of atmospheres. The pre-recorded part is based on beat-like sounds that embrace and impulse the frantic part of the strings – perfectly suited for the members of Attacca Quartet.

Among the movements of John’s Book, the lyricism of “Habanera” has to be highlighted; a sensual composition that echoes Arabic scales and resources used in traditional North-African orchestras. On the other hand, “Rag the bone” is a primitive dance, in which the recorded part evokes, in some way, the music of the caverns. “Dogjam” is more like a moto perpetuo; like a Swiss watch in which each piece is carefully assembled to create a perfect movement. Humour and unexpected sounds prevail in “Alligator Escalator”, while a jazzy melody defines the character of “Judah to Ocean”. Finally, the expressiveness of “Pavane: She’s So Fine” proves that beauty is still possible in contemporary music. In this particular case, Adams combines the references to an idealized antiquity with the evocation of pop music, freshly performed by the Quartet.

The Attacca Quartet's Beethoven was not so convincing. Their performance of Op.18 no.1 can be described as “perfect”; the melodic lines were clear and the tuning was pure. Nonetheless, one would have preferred a more passionate reading, something more intense and profound, especially in the second movement.

The concert ended with Adams’ String Quartet, composed in 2009. A Spanish critic has recently written that this composition helps dissipate any doubt on the future of music in the 21st century. This is true if we take into account that, in his quartet, Adams has managed to create a large scale composition that carries his unmistakable, syncretic label.

The quartet is divided in two sections: the first one is a modern, dissonant experiment, combining violent and hypnotic parts, while the second shares its playfulness with the Alleged Dances. The final result is, nevertheless, arguable. The work has brilliant passages, but also has obscure parts in which the music loses direction. The essential element of Adams’ music is rhythm; there are no melodic motifs, no harmonic constructions, but pure rhythm. Structuring a large scale composition upon this single, repetitive element is a difficult task and, although this String Quartet is a “real string quartet” (as Adams likes to describe it), it is an irregular work.

However, Mr. Adams' music demonstrates that contemporary composers can still connect with the public. The audience in Madrid recognized this quality and applauded enthusiastically both the merits of the composer and a memorable performance.

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