Edinburgh Festival: Classical - John Adams Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
IT SOUNDS like a dumb thing to say, but John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music was the most technically accomplished of the three works performed by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra in the Usher Hall. Adams conducted, and although this resembled something out of a Walt Disney movie, he knows what he wants, both as conductor and composer. If he wants grand confusion, he writes grand confusion; if he wants pellucid, glowing textures, or brilliant pentatonic sheen, he writes these things. The sound is always nicely considered, and the large orchestra is used with prudence and delicacy.

This big, new work is meant to reflect Schiller's dictum about poets: some write direct from the heart, some reflect culture. Adams's piece begins with a simple flute over strumming chords, but it then begins to echo familiar voices, Messiaen's Chronochromie, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, even (shock, horror) Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.

Adams is no longer a minimalist. This piece is inventive, the second movement still and serene, the finale resounding with the clangour of a belfry, booming and banging with enormous brazen sonorities.

But over-enthusiasm for this work is out of place, as the other two works on the programme were the very striking Sunshine of Your Love by Michael Gordon, a world premiere, and Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony. Both Ives and Gordon are uncompromising in a way that Adams is merely effective.

"What has sound got to do with music?" Ives once asked. The odd thing about his works is that they are best when you read them in the score, full of fascinating witty detail which cannot be brought out in performance. This symphony has quotations of hymns, Stephen Foster songs, country dance tunes and military marches. But even in this superb performance, you merely heard a kind of happy chaos, what Ives himself called "mud". With all his transcendentalist ideas, Ives was indeed the naive artist, and somehow this makes him great.

Gordon's piece, he tells us, was inspired by the Eric Clapton number of the same name. Since he tunes the strings one-eighth of a tone apart, it is impossible for him to get anything you could call melody or harmony. Instead, this slab of music is more like the sound of a subway train approaching down the tunnel. The work was an eye-opener. Alongside it, Adams's piece of evocation seemed just a student exercise.