The last time I saw Sam Adams, he played principal bass in the Crowden School Orchestra at a memorable concert marking the 50th birthday of his dad, John Adams, already a world renown composer then.
Now, with exponentially greater fame, the father is 65, and the son is 26. Tonight, it was the turn of Samuel Carl Adams to shine in Davies Hall, which has been his father’s domain: most of what passes for new music in the San Francisco Symphony repertory comes from John Adams.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the SFS in the West Coast premiere Sam’s “Drift and Providence,” following the world premiere earlier this year with MTT’s other orchestra, Miami’s New World Symphony.
Not coincidentally, the program for the second half of tonight’s concert was Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The orchestra used by young Adams is close to the size Mahler requires.
The 20-minute work does credit to the novice composer, with brilliant orchestration, a big sound, commanding interest – at least for a while. It has all the characteristics of a film score: it has atmosphere, it’s accompanying, underlying something, but it’s difficult to say what.
The “Drift” part is obvious as the music spreads out, undulates, repeats, but what “Providence” may be remains a mystery, at least for me. (Repeats, not ostinato – unlike Adams Sr., especially when young, Sam is no Minimalist.)
Sam, according to programs notes, throughout the work “controls a laptop computer that enhances certain frequencies emanating from the amplified percussion section.” Sincere kudos to composer and performers for not making the electronics obvious. It all blends in; whether it’s necessary or not, at least it’s not bothersome.
Of the work’s five sections – played without breaks – the opening “Embarcadero” is the most impressive, the wharf (what the Spanish translates to) depicted through string sonorities washing over unusually handled brass (players exhaling through their instruments), a large percussion section lifting the sound of vibraphones and sizzle cymbals.
“Drift I” and “Drift II” bracket a movement called “Divisadero,” meant to refer to distance and separation involved in division – how it’s expressed in the music, I cannot say. The final movement is “Providence,” with high volume, including a quadruple forte. Cowbells (a tip of the hat to Mahler?) play a role at the beginning and end of “Drift and Providence.”
The MTT-SFS Mahler partnership has offered the Fifth Symphony more than any other work. Of the seven or eight performances I heard over the years, tonight’s was not the most emotional or brilliant, but it had the distinction of being confident and effortless. Conductor and orchestra have mastered this work with the assurance and authenticity of the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic.
The performance is vital, exciting, all-of-one-piece. The music is straightforward, unmannered, clearly articulated, with sweeping climaxes, smooth transitions, passages of short-lived calm.
When the score asks for “grosster Vehemenz,” the music’s fury in Davies Hall is all there, but in its power, not loudness. What Henry-Louis de La Grange once called the essential part of Mahler’s greatness – “his provocations, his excesses and paradoxes” – become understandable and glorious, no longer challenging, alien or overwhelming. The orchestra as a whole and every section performed in a way meeting or exceeding well-founded expectations.