The first movement of “Century Rolls,” John Adams’ new concerto for piano, starts like a wind-up machine. Delicately clinking and squeaking in syncopation, it sounds as if two American musical inventions, minimalism and jazz, came together to make a music box. Though the jazz is of the George Gershwin variety, its giddy energy takes us back to early images of the bustling 20th century — rushing cars, thronging crowds, the urban frenzy of dazzling gizmos. After Emanuel Ax’s piano joins in like a moody whirligig, the ensemble (the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi) builds to a delirium that pushes towards exhaustion. Strange that our 21st century nostalgia should be for those moments when the madness we now swim in first started filling up the pool.
The resonant bass notes of “Manny’s Gym,” the languid second movement (a pun on “Emanuel’s gymnopedie”), point unmistakably to Erik Satie. Like an elegy to the lost restfulness of a preindustrial era, “Gym” gives us a tender workout. Though the tranquility is invaded by complex chords and tempos that almost yearn for the fast lane, the lovely Satie seesaw reigns it all in.
In the third and final movement, “Hail Bop,” Ax literally rocks — combining the keyboard attack of a Prokofiev concerto with neobebop and boogie-woogie phrasing. Showing a deftness and rare sense of swing for a classical pianist, Ax takes Adams’ score (and us with it) to the other side of the event horizon. It’s a pulsating, exhilarating work by a major American voice.
Rounding out the program are two shorter Adams pieces: “Lollapalooza” (1995) and “Slonimsky’s Earbox” (1996), both performed by the Hallé Orchestra with Kent Nagano conducting (and both previously available on Nonesuch’s 10-CD set, The John Adams Earbox). “Lollapalooza” bursts in with a healthy nod to Aaron Copland (a longtime Adams influence) and just about turns the orchestra into a dance band, though whoever moves to this seven-minute punk-square dance dominated by horns and timpani better have their shoes on tight.
“Slonimsky’s Earbox” suggests more of the same, but turns into a self-serve buffet of rhythms, hooks and shimmering textures that recalls the composer’s early minimalist days — only of such richness and variety that minimalism hardly seems like the right word.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.