Michael Tilson Thomas / John Adams / San Francisco Symphony

John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music

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Performed by the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, great champions of John Adams' music all around, this album pairs the Grand Pianola Music, one of the early fruits of Adams' expansion of the minimalist language, with a newly commissioned work, Absolute Jest. The pairing is logical, for both works quote the music of Beethoven, but it is the latter work that makes news here. The title may refer to David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, but it also suggests the substance of the work: humor raised to an abstract principle. The work is essentially a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, and its raw material comes from several Beethoven quartets, but most thoroughly the last one, the String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135. The work is explicitly funny (Beethoven even writes the words "Must it be? It must be!" over the main rhythmic elements of the finale), and Adams preserves the humor. But he also builds large structures out of the Beethovenian moves, expanding the points at which the music gets harmonically "stuck," exploiting the contrast between string quartet and orchestra, and generally combining rigorous development with extreme high spirits. There are apparently those who would like a more elevated statement from Adams at this point in his career, but note that the easy listening background vocals of the Grand Pianola Music (effortlessly rendered by pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham) faced the same kind of criticism. A great deal of fun, enthusiastically received by the Davies Symphony Hall audiences in these live 2013 recordings.

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