It’s a distinct privilege to attend a concert that is being conducted by a living composer, as was the case last night in Zurich’s beautifully restored historic Tonhalle, where the highly-venerated American composer, John Adams, this year’s Composer-in-Residence, himself held the baton. The sell-out crowd was treated to three of Adams’ works and a full configuration of the Tonhalle’s fine orchestra, whose performance was second to none.

John Adams rehearses the Tonhalle Orchestra
© Alberto Venzago

Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine made a perfect, if short, introduction to the post-minimalist genre that the composer has hallmarked and, in this instance, it was as full of humour as it was of the unexpected. Adams once commented on his work, “Do you know what it's like when someone invites you to ride in a great sports car and you wish you'd turned them down?” Ingeniously, that commotion and element of surprise are inherent to the work.

Second on the programme was Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, an electrifying piano concerto in the first performance of the work here in Switzerland. The piece was infused with good humour and enlightened shifts; outlets that our many months of the pandemic had hitherto imposed on players and audience alike. Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson’s performance was as tight as the score was demanding. Not once, despite the sheer, huge volume of notes, did Ólafsson give us a muddy segment. Instead, he moved as easily through the highly demanding, even calamitous interludes as he did through almost lugubrious dream sequences, with both precision and terrific aplomb. His was a polished and highly commendable performance, one masterfully embedded in – and enhanced by – the superb work of the Tonhalle.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Alberto Venzago

After the interval, the orchestra performed the large-scale Naive and Sentimental Music, a work of some 45 minutes for full orchestra in three movements. Dating from the late 1990s, the work is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish composer/conductor whom Adams highly admires for having mastered the great and constant juggle between an inner (creative) and outer performance (public/performance) life. Adams himself alluded to it some years ago as “the most ambitious of anything I’ve yet to write.”

The first movement was launched by the flutes, a kind of lyrical beginning which was enhanced shortly thereafter by nine superb cellos. With ever-increasing volume, the other instruments kicked in, building up to a tremendous clang that shook the hall, an expression that never shied away from what, at least in some instances, was almost an apocalyptic kind of Star Wars cacophony.

The second movement featured an almost lullaby-esque bassoon and melodious clarinet, alternating chimes and triangle, highly-demanding string work, and a number of experimental forms of play among the many percussionists. The final movement explored a scope of one-off-the-other instrumental play that might, in lay language, be called something like “anti-rhythms” and which often contributed to an audio-world of truly upbeat expression. The here and now was all that seemed to matter, and at the end of the piece, all of the players enjoyed what was close to a musical explosive, one that lifted the entire Zurich audience right out of its seats in a thunderous ovation.

In sum, this concert felt almost like an electrical charge or “reset” for the orchestra’s players and the audience alike, one entirely welcome after months of the pandemic’s restrictions. The thunderous applause showed as enthusiastic a reception of contemporary works as any I’ve heard in this hall.