- John's Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet - John Adams - James Covert - Attacca Quartet
Fellow Traveler: The Complete String Quartet Works of John Adamsby Attacca Quartet
When it comes to composers broadly categorized under the heading of minimalism, it's rare to find works grouped by genre in the conventional way. But the Attacca Quartet, a young group out of New York's Juilliard School, shows what can be done with this set of three pieces by John Adams, entirely different in tone but clearly the products of the same composer. The best-known work on the program, "John's Book of Alleged Dances" (1994), has been recorded several times. It's a madcap work, full of humorous or satirical images and references to styles of music from the Baroque to rock, yet very tightly constructed. Its ten movements may be played in any order, and they do seem to suggest dance interpretation, even though Adams referred to them as "alleged dances" because the dance steps for them had not been invented yet. The "String Quartet" of 2008, by contrast, is in keeping with the general greater seriousness of the music of Adams' middle age. Its giant 20-minute first movement manages to weave sections of traditional sonata form together with a progression from the composer's basic minimalist style into more jazz-inflected music, and it's one of Adams' most ambitious structures. The Attacca Quartet does well with both these contrasting emotional worlds and is undaunted by the considerable technical challenges in the music. The small "Fellow Traveler" (the work is dedicated to opera director Peter Sellars and refers to his interest in physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, suspected of being a Communist or "fellow traveler" by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation) closes out the program with melodies related to those of Adams' operatic works. Adams operas like "Doctor Atomic" and especially "Nixon in China" are better known than any of the music here, but this crackling release might carve out a place for the two larger works in the general quartet repertory.
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The Attacca Quartet is a relatively new quartet, which is significant. Because they bring a youthful attitude and energy to Adam's music -- and the works benefit greatly from it. "John's Book of Alleged Dances" is a wonderful collection of made-up dances. And its a set that should be played with a sense of fun. How can you take movements named "Dogjam" or "Alligator Escalator" otherwise? Yet this is demanding music that only works when played with precision and energy. The Attica pulls it all together, and delivers a winning performance. I won't say this is the definitive performance, but it's pretty darned close. Also included is Adams' 2008 String Quartet, and the title select, "Fellow Traveler." The latter is a birthday present to Adams' opera collaborator Peter Sellers, and receives its world premier with this release. Although a short work, its unaffected nature and spontaneity makes it an ideal encore piece -- a function it sort of serves in this release.
Difficult music to perform, but not quite my cup of tea… This recording is made up of 3 string quartet works by contemporary composer John Adams. I must confess that I have never really been a fan of Adams symphonic works, but thought I would give this a fair shake. Unfortunately, I heard little to change my opinion of his work. Perhaps the driving element in all of Adams’ works is rhythm. And the first set of 10 short pieces certainly fits that description. The most approachable of the 10 for me is the 9th piece, “Habanera”. This has melodic elements that I felt comfortable with – not the case with the other short pieces. The next work, “String Quartet – Part 1 and Part 2”, is rhythmic but again there is no melody that stands out, nor any thematic material that I felt I could latch onto. The final piece on the recording, the title track, is very approachable and has a driven melodic theme throughout that anyone in today’s busy world should definitely be able to relate to, almost as if it is a soundtrack for the busyness of the day-to-day working environment. All of that being said, the music is very difficult to play and the Attacca Quartet is extremely precise and is obviously working very hard to do these works justice. I would very much like to hear them perform pieces from not-so-contemporary composers, as I have a feeling that this quartet would do some amazing Bartok. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that this composer is just not for me. However, those listeners that enjoy his work will likely be captivated by the quality of the performance and music making herein. But if you are not an Adams fan, then stay away.
Attacca Quartet are up against some fierce competition in "John's Book of Alleged Dances" (commissioned and premiered by Kronos Quartet), and the String Quartet (written for the St. Lawrence String Quartet). The title track, "Fellow Traveler", is getting its debut recording on this disc (it was written in 2007), and the young musicians in Attacca Quartet breathe fresh new life into all three of these string quartet works. Highly recommended.