New Classical Tracks: Images of John Adams

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
March 29, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — A portrait is the image of a person. Most portraits come in the form of a painting, a drawing, a photograph or even a verbal description. French Canadian violinist Angele Dubeau and her ensemble La Pieta have been building a gallery of musical portraits. Their collection started with Philip Glass, then the Estonian composer Arvo Part, and now John Adams has been added to the display. Angele Dubeau says she intentionally chose three contemporary, living composers, "It gives me the chance to widen my horizons, to explore new repertoire. I found it just fantastic to think that almost 35 years into my career, I still have new repertoire and new composers to discover!"

Angele Dubeau admits that her new portrait of John Adams is her most challenging project to date. "Technically speaking, it's really going into very complex rhythms. The exuberance of the rhythm characterizes his music. If you take the first piece on the CD, 'Road Movies' for violin and piano-- just to give you an example, I usually change the battery of a metronome every five or six years. With the John Adams I've changed it twice in two months. It's just amazing. He's asking the first movement of this to be a 'relaxed groove,' or [in the last movement] '40 percent swing.' You have to get the rhythm exact. And in his music the rhythm is never exact, and it's never on the beat. It's always a little after, or a little before. You don't have time to enjoy playing it, you almost have to get the metronome inside of you."

The music of John Adams not only features complex rhythms--the texture can also be very complex. The second work on this recording, "John's Book of Alleged Dances," was written originally for string quartet. Dubeau made the work doubly challenging by adding a second quartet. "So before going on with this work, I had to ask the composer. The answer from Mr. Adams was . Are you sure you want to do this, because the Kronos Quartet, who did the first reading, told me these dances are almost unplayable. Are you sure you want to double the trouble? It just pinched me the right way, it gave me a little sparkle. I decided to prove we could do it!"

Several dances are featured in this suite, each of which has a humorous descriptive title like "Judah to Ocean," "Dogjam," and "Rag the Bone," and "Hammer and Chisel." Dubeau didn't even know what a chisel was when she recorded the piece, but she says that didn't stop her from capturing the essence of that piece and the other works in that suite. "You know, the most beautiful thing about music is that Mr. Adams can give those titles that we can refer to, and as an interpreter I have to, but the listener can make his own images, his own souvenir. That's the beauty of the music."

The score of "John's Book of Alleged Dances," comes with a note from the composer telling the performers they can choose whatever dances they want to play, in whatever order. Angele Dubeau chose the dances which came with a pre-recorded electronic rhythmic loop. "One good example," Dubeau explains, "is the Habanera. You almost want to dance with this loop. As a matter of fact, I remember the first time I received the score, I put the CD in and I wanted to dance just listening to the loops. It was already an invitation to the dance, so when you color it with the real musical players, it's wonderful, the combination of the two."

This portrait of John Adams closes out with his first emblematic piece, the famous "Shaker Loops," written in1978. Angele Dubeau says that for her, there are many strong images created in this music. "One of them is when, you know, you just take a rock in your hand and you throw it in the water. Then it will make all those circle of waves in the water. The music is just this imprint of waves, the undulation and the vibrations. It's full of color and light, this piece."

Angele Dubeau and her all-female ensemble La Pieta, which she formed in 1997, are a colorful group. On stage, each member wears a splash of red, the color associated with La Pieta, the 18th century Venetian orphanage where Vivaldi spent most of his career. Dubeau says the color really goes well with the group's energy and with their powerful way of playing, which is demonstrated over and over again on their new portrait of John Adams.

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