John Adams as composer, conductor and thinker is the post-modern generation's Pierre Boulez. He took the BBC Symphony Orchestra through a massive new piece, as warmly applauded by the players as by the audience, building up through a first half that dripped with cross-references and influences. Ravel, Satie and Debussy: it could have been a Boulez programme, except that the influences it claimed for them were completely opposite.
His new work was a real Main Event, the London premiere of Naive and Sentimental Music, lasting nearly an hour. On the surface, it's an ideas piece, named for Goethe's concept of naive and sentimental art. Rather than their modern meaning, the terms refer first to art in which feeling and brain are as one, and second to the intrusion of self-consciousness.
Never mind that for now, because the music sounds like a straight-down-the-line symphony with poetic titles. Two of its three movements – one steady-paced, one slow – come with main themes, developments or interruptions, and end with wonderful punctuality at just the moment everything is worked out. The first sustains a finely timed form at great length. Over plain piano chords, an apparently simple melody starts up, and just keeps on running. Three times a climax gradually builds, as other lines join in and the brass punch out trademark Adams offbeat chords.
What follows is a still and almost simple, melody, meandering a little until brought to its senses by beautiful, severe string chords. A shimmer and buzz like the same moment in Adams's Grand Pianola Music set off a third movement with less character and focus. You can see the end coming for five minutes, and the effect is like earlier Adams pieces padded out. Still, this is not the first work of its kind to have finale trouble, while the opening movement is an astonishing achievement.
There's an Adams paradox. His music grew from an American movement that briefly succeeded in being naive again, yet he's as self-aware as they come. Let him loose conducting something simpler like Satie's Gymnopedies, and he turns fussy, as though he won't believe the music can speak directly. Fussy is also the word for his orchestration of Debussy songs to make Le Livre de Baudelaire. It's very beautiful but more like early Schoenberg. Felicity Lott's soprano line soared serenely through it, even retaining some of the intimate expression that she brings to this repertoire in less inflated circumstances.
This Prom will be repeated on Radio 3 next Friday at 2pmReuse content