Prom 49: BBC SO/Adams, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

There is something so irresistibly appealing about John Adams. It's not just his gait or the colour of his shirt (on this occasion turquoise) but the freshness in all he does - trust him to show up Proms fustiness.

There is something so irresistibly appealing about John Adams. It's not just his gait or the colour of his shirt (on this occasion turquoise) but the freshness in all he does - trust him to show up Proms fustiness.

This was a fascinatingly planned "East/West" concert with Adams' fingerprints all over it. As if to explain his origins, and answer the endless "are you still a signed-up member of the Glass/Reich minimalist fraternity?" speculation, Adams, conducting the BBC SO (he's the orchestra's "Artist in Association"), gave us what seemed to be a potted history of how it all came about and where he's currently going.

The place to start had to be Ravel: the last movement of his solo piano suite Miroirs ("La vallée des cloches"), orchestrated not by Adams but by Percy Grainger. In one fell swoop, Adams displayed both Ravel and Grainger's enthusiasm for the Balinese gamelan "translated" to the West with Western colouring, and how closely it resembles the original minimal sound.

The Canadian composer Colin McPhee (1901-1964), spent extended time in Bali transcribing gamelan music for western instruments, and became hugely influential on the early minimalists in the West Coast through his teaching at the University of California. Few of his works survive, but the three-movement Tabuh-Tabuhan toccata for orchestra and two pianos (1936) is proto Steve Reich - and an extraordinarily successful synthesis of Western orchestral sound and gamelan.

American popular music is never far from Adams. In Songs of Ragtime and Reminiscence, Audra McDonald was a captivating soprano soloist in settings orchestrated by Adams and William David Brohn of songs by Charles Ives, Hughie Cannon, Gershwin, Charles K Harris and Irving Berlin. Cannon's "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" with its jaunty banjo and tuba brought the house down.

This was a European première, as were two pieces by John Adams himself. "Easter Eve 1945" afforded a snatch preview of Adams' "opera in preparation", Doctor Atomic, which takes as its subject the building in America of the atomic bomb. McDonald was again the soloist in this powerfully rapturous piece.

Adams frequently comments that his works come in twos: "serious" and "the trickster". The Dharma at Big Sur is definitely in the latter category. Written to open the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, it's a rhapsody for electric violin and orchestra. Soloist Tracy Silverman soared over the orchestra in apparently Indian/notated-jazz improvisation which, oddly, denied both freedom and spontaneity.

Booking: 020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms. Prom 49 online to Sunday

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