The ground-breaking, contemporary American composer and conductor John Adams is this season’s guest at the Tonhalle Zürich. Born in 1947, his work is hallmarked both by its touching depths of expression, and what has been coined a “humanistic” approach. While the Minimalism of his early compositions has, over the years, given way to a broader spectrum of styles, his work is consistently marked by ingenious contrasts, energy and buoyancy, often cited for “discovering the power of melody anew.” Indeed, the title in the Tonhalle’s programme for the work of “Body, Spirit and Hypermelody” was no understatement.

Jaap van Zweden
© Brad Trent

Adams’ Violin Concerto is no easy piece for the uninitiated listener: much of it is atonal and marked by tremendous dynamism and variation. Nonetheless, Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts nailed the Herculean task. He launched the 35-minute work in a way that felt like bubbles coming up to a surface and, with an almost constant musical presence, played his complex part with a precision that was breathtaking. Adams' demanding and ever-innovative score is one that can hardly be committed to memory: the rich palette of notes, frequent mood changes and tempi rendered that impossible. However, Gringolts showed himself a true master of expression and exactitude; a flawless performance.

Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden was no less an inspiration. His direction saw him moving within the three movements of the concerto as if it were a second skin. And while Adams’ score was a study in the unexpected,  one that seems to lack any hope for traditional resolution, the huge orchestral configuration never lost its precision or its unity. At one sudden break, the winds had a dreamlike sequence; in another, the superb solo flute and oboe shared a little melody; xylophone and chimes created another underwater sensation. Adams has himself contended that the work “discovered the power of the melody newly”. One could never predict what was next: whether bombast by the double bass, another frenzy of sound from the solo violin, more smiles on the faces of the wind instrumentalists. It was an unprecedented build-up to a glorious finish, soloist, players and conductor all deserving the highest accolades. 

The performance of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony that followed was equally compelling. The orchestra was expanded to include some 90 players with whom Van Zweden took the first movement, as marked by the composer, slowly, even a bit lugubriously (Langsam, schleppend). After the horns emerged from the tutti with terrific gusto, the movement slowed to something Mahler cited as “like a natural sound, always very leisurely,” before it drew to its fulminant close and saw the whole orchestra coming down on an ending that was tight as a tick.

The second movement, which Mahler signed as “moving vigorously, but not too fast” was as inviting as a sweep around a skating risk, and van Zweden evidenced his great gift for dance: you could almost feel the score through his body like a breath of fresh air; a polished clarinet underscored festive good-heartedness, and the solo harp mastered a stunning, other-worldly passage.

Mahler’s “stormy” finale made its entrance with a clash of timpani and cymbals, the conductor furiously turning the pages of his score, the players pulling out all the stops for the richly woven fabric of exuberant sound. The French horns underscored that majesty and, at the work’s conclusion, the audience went wild with applause.