Adams keeps crowd rapt

Resident Conductor John Kennedy conducted the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in a program Monday night featuring John Adams' “Harmonielehre” and works by Ravel, Boulez and Vasks.

Julia Lynn

Maurice Ravel usually takes a backseat to his fellow impressionist Debussy, yet his music has a lot to reveal to the initiated listener, far beyond the obvious.

Ravel, even a century later, remains one of the most influential orchestrators of all time, especially for his ability to elevate orchestral timbre to unprecedented prominence and to weave transparent buoyant texture out of large orchestral forces.

“Frontispice” is a curious, short, episodic piano piece made up of five consecutive layers of repeating angular chromatic passages unrelated to each other in pitch or register, all cyclical in nature that spin out of control to reveal a series of triadic concluding chords.

Pierre Boulez, the notorious and polemic modernist of the past century with the “best ear in the business,” who has been composing curiously consonant music lately, is very aware of the task he takes on in orchestrating Ravel.

Soft winds clarify the rather muddy piano gestures, birdsong elements given to solo violin and piccolo, soft wooden and metal percussion over col legno pointillistic string punctuation eventually give way to full string chords. The piece was performed twice, a smart move on conductor John Kennedy’s part, allowing the audience to sink in and really enjoy the subtleties the second time around.

Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ stylistic journey has followed what has become almost a typical path for a generation of Eastern European composers starting out behind the iron curtain. Most adapted early the previously forbidden Western techniques — dissonance, sound mass and aleatoricism — then returned to folk and religious influences, eventually settling on some consonant minimal style.

Vask’s “Credo” was a tranquil, consonant movement, reminiscent of Arvo Part, yet predictable and uneventful. Shaped like a film score in form, texture and pitch organization, it avoided any ambiguity, dissonance or wrinkle of any kind, and left me disengaged, with nothing to remember.

In sharp contrast, the second half of the program, John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” from 1985, sounded as fresh tonight as did almost 30 years ago, when it established Adams as much more than a minimalist, a label that never did his music justice.

Driving energy, translucent orchestral color, long reaching lines, shimmering highs and full punctuating lows all come together in a rich, kaleidoscopic counterpoint of elements that is always paced just right, constantly reshaping itself into unexpected guises, very much in the moment, yet almost out of time. Adams uses familiar gestures and harmonic vocabulary, but he does so in a completely personal way.

A lot of the success of his music relies on his ability to keep several layers of activity going on at once, all of which constantly shift and morph, yet remain familiar and engaging. His motoric rhythmic cells change tempo, his tonal centers move, his long angular lines connect distant time points.

The orchestration always is luminous and balanced, yet punchy and overwhelming.

This music is very hard to perform, and tonight’s reading was as good as any I’ve heard. The young musicians, led with gusto and energy by John Kennedy, were clearly convinced by the piece, and so was the audience, who was kept at the edge of their seat for the entire duration of three lengthy movements. Clearly, contemporary music is not about stylistic wars, as the conductor remarked in his introduction, but about personality and effectiveness.

Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a composer and professor of music at the College of Charleston.