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Juilliard Orchestra Are In "Absolute Jest"

Juilliard Orchestra conducted by John Adams. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the night of Monday, April 29th, I had the privilege of attending an excellent concert presented by the precocious members of the Juilliard Orchestra under the assured baton of guest conductor—and eminent composer—John Adams.

The event began auspiciously with a pleasurable account of Ludwig van Beethoven’s marvelous Overture to his opera Fidelio, Op. 72. In her note for the program, Georgeanne Banker—who holds a Master of Music degree in Historical Performance from Juilliard—provides some useful background: “With a libretto derived from Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's 1798 play Léonore, ou L'amour con-jugal, the opera follows its titular heroine, disguised as a man named Fidelio, on her quest to rescue her husband Florestan from the depths of a Spanish prison.” She goes on to quote the composer:

“The affair of the opera is the most troublesome in the world, and there is scarcely one part of it which quite satisfies me now,” Beethoven wrote to Georg Friedrich Treitschke, who edited its libretto in 1814. “But what a difference between this and giving oneself up to freely flowing thought and inspiration!”

And she adds:

The first iteration of the opera premiered in 1805 to a hall of French soldiers in occupied Vienna. After years of revisions (and after composing Symphonies 4 through 8), Fidelio in its final form was revived in May 1814, just weeks after Napoleon Bonaparte was shipped off to Elba. 

In his quest to revise the opera, Beethoven prepared no fewer than four distinct overtures for it.

The ensemble was then joined by the accomplished musicians of the string quartet, The Dolphins—with violinists Luke Henderson and Isaac Park, violist James Preucil, and cellist Ian Maloney—for a rewarding performance of Adams’s own ambitious Absolute Jest from 2012. About the piece, he wrote that its “creation was for me a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design. The ‘jest' of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta': doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest' as indicating an exercising of one's wit by means of imagination and invention.” 

Banker explains, “Composed in six movements, Absolute Jest is scored for a solo string quartet and large orchestra with harp and piano tuned in meantone temperament.” Adams records: “The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the same Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references—of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony, and other archetypal Beethoven motives that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.” 

The composer also said: 

The high-spirited triple-time scherzo to the F-major Opus 135 (Beethoven's final work in that medium) enters about a third of the way through Absolute Jest and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece, interrupted only by a brief slow section that interweaves fragments of the Grosse Fuge with the opening fugue theme of the C-minor quartet. A final furious coda features the solo string quartet charging ahead at full speed over an extended orchestral pedal based on the famous Waldstein Sonata harmonic progressions.

Banker concludes, “The final Prestissimo, running straight out of the preceding Vivacissimo, distills motifs from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, to their elemental state, rallying the orchestral forces in a sort of maximal minimalism that brings Absolute Jest to a close.”

Although certainly distinguished, this is not one of my very favorite pieces by Adams but it does build to a thrilling climax with a quiet ending. Reflection upon the work elicits the thought that much of its effectiveness depends on the rhetorical figure of allusion which, for it to fulfill its purpose, requires recognition of its antecedent—in Absolute Jest, this affords considerable enjoyment.

The second half of the evening would have been extraordinary even if only for what began it, a sterling version of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun from 1894, one of the most glorious compositions in the canon of Western symphonic music. Also admirable was the final selection, a compelling realization of the same composer’s beautifully scored Ibéria from his orchestral work, Images. About the piece, Manuel de Falla recounted:

However, as far as Ibéria is concerned, Claude Debussy expressly said, at the time of its first performance, that he had not intended to make Spanish music, but rather to translate into music the impressions that Spain awakened in him. Let us hasten to add that this was achieved in a magnificent manner. The echoes of the villages, including a kind of sevillana—the work's theme—seem to float in a clear atmosphere of sparkling light; the intoxicating magic of Andalusian nights, the joy of a festive people marching and dancing to the joyous chords of a banda of guitarras and bandurrias ... all this swirls in the air, approaching and receding, and our imagination, constantly on the alert, remains dazzled by the strong virtues of an intensely expressive and richly nuanced music.

The initial movement, entitled “In the Streets and Byways,” is ebullient on the whole, although with some more subdued episodes, while the ensuing movement, “The Fragrances of the Night,” is more meditative, purely impressionistic, and anticipatory. The final movement, “The Morning of a Festival Day,” is propulsive and dance-like, with some gentler interludes; it concludes forcefully. 

The artists were enthusiastically applauded.

The final Juilliard Orchestra concert of the season, which will be conducted by Marin Alsop, will occur on May 23rd at Alice Tully Hall.

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