Adams’ musical elegy for the Earth

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

In 2014 Ludovic Morlot conducted the world premiere of ‘Become Ocean’ the first of American composer John Luther Adams’ ecological orchestral trilogy. It won the Pulitzer Prize and Morlot conducted the 2015 Grammy award-winning recording of the work.So we were in experienced hands for the UK Premiere of Adams’ ‘Vespers of the Blessed Earth’ with Morlot at the helm. It’s a big work: around fifty minutes occupying the concert’s first half, and utilizing a large orchestra with extra percussion, choral forces and a solo soprano. Adams name-checks Monteverdi’s masterpiece as an inspiration with the work’s plaintive prayers addressed not to Virgin but to the Earth itself in all its “complexity and mystery”. To dismiss this as New Age healing-crystal-speak would be wrong. Adams’ ecological concerns are grounded in experience; before becoming a full-time composer he was an environmental activist, moving to Alaska to campaign for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and was executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Centre.

When conducting ‘Become Ocean’ in Detroit, Leonard Slatkin warned his audience, “You’ll not hear the won’t hear harmony as don’t hear [the melodic element] as melodies” adding that Adams’ music is more concerned with sound “textures” all played at an unwavering slow tempo. The ‘Vespers’ employs a similar framework, most obviously in the third of its five movements the instrumental ‘Night-Shining Clouds’ with its sensuous shimmering string textures portraying iridescent illuminated clouds made beautiful, in deadly irony, by our industrially polluted atmosphere. Variety is provided spatially with Adams effectively having two facing mini orchestras, basses in four pairs – left, right, front and back – wind players up in the circle, creating an airy surround-sound feel. Elsewhere the soundscape is transformed by the voices which Adams uses dexterously and imaginatively, brilliantly performed by the CBSO Chorus and University of Birmingham Voices under Chorus Director Simon Halsey. Adams is a musical minimalist but the ‘Vespers’ subject matter is maximalist, opening with ‘A Brief Descent into Deep Time’ with the choir hypnotically chanting the names and colours of the Grand Canyon’s geology spanning two billion years. The a capella chorus twitters, trills and ululates in ‘A Weeping of Doves’ with Adams shifting the sound around, turning Symphony Hall into an aviary. In ‘Litanies of the Sixth Extinction’ the choirs, divided into four, sing the Latin names of 193 endangered species with the last one ‘Homo sapiens’ ringing out last. The final movement ‘Aria of the Ghost Bird’ is also the most beautiful with Katie Trethewey’s mellifluous wordless soprano and solo piccolo – slowly dying into the distance – portraying the Hawaiian bird which became extinct in 1987. The ‘Vespers’ is ambitious, moving, poignant and musically engaging. What I missed in a work devoted to eschatology – the end of days, the fate of the earth and mankind – was the righteous anger of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’. For me Adams goes a bit too gently ‘into that Good Night.’

After the restrained inhalation of Adams, Sibelius’s Symphony No.2 was a roaring vibrant exhalation of musical energy. Morlot conducted a splendid performance with the CBSO vigorous and vital throughout. From the first fiddles’ early statement of the opening movement’s theme – a welcome return for guest leader ZoĆ« Beyers – one felt this would be special. The Vivacissimo crackled with energy, its assertive bristling opening interspersed with soothing wind interjections. Anthony Alcock’s bass section was riveting, their pizzicati sounded like a cohort of Nordic giants on tiptoe. Morlot safely guided us through Sibelius’s delayed-gratification finale for a tremendous climax.

Norman Stinchcombe

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