Adams and Glass in London

I steeped myself in some imported culture this week — modern classical music by two of the most famous living American composers. Thursday evening I went over to the Barbican to hear the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Adams, performing his own new City Noir, written about Los Angeles in honor of Gustavo Dudamel’s taking over the LA Philharmonic last year. The evening started with what seemed to me perhaps slightly halfhearted performances of Debussy and Ravel, but things picked up fantastically after the break.

Jeremy Denk took on the piano (which rises majestically from a hole in the stage) for Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. He pounded the hell out of the keyboard, with the orchestra barely (but successfully) keeping up: Adams seemed almost to be sharing conducting duties with Denk at the piano. Although originally written when he lived in Europe, Stravinsky revisited the Concerto after he had moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, (along with so many other European composers) so it made an appropriate prelude. City Noir fulfilled its brief: evocative of the sleaze and grit in our minds’ versions of those film-noir classics. Indeed, the only movies Adams mentions by name are the revisionist Chinatown, and “The Naked City” (which was NY, not LA, in both its film and TV incarnations), which brings to mind yet another contemporary American composer, John Zorn, although Adams works harder than Zorn to keep his chaos at bay.

The next night I went to the English National Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha from 1980, the story of Gandhi in South Africa in the early 1900s. Produced by the wonderful Improbable theatre company, combining the expertise of their “skills ensemble” at puppetry, dance, stilt-walking and imaginative production design with the ENO’s musical abilities in a magical production.

The over-the-top activity of the production works well with Glass’ so-called minimalism, highlighting the action and emotion present even in the intentional repetitions of notes and phrases. The centrepiece and high point of the production recounts, or at least alludes to, “The Indian Opinion” a newspaper founded by Gandhi to recount and communicate the tale of the opposition to racist policies in South Africa. Using individual newspapers, rolls of newsprint evoking the printing presses, the scene is gorgeous, one of the best-realized fifteen minutes of music and theater I have experienced in a long time.

The only glaring fault (aside from the London Coliseum’s closely-packed seats and a thermostat seemingly set about five degrees too high) was not aesthetic, but logistical: the use of projections onto the back of the stage, parts of which were hidden from anyone above the first level of seating. It was an unexpected oversight in a production that was otherwise so perfectly choreographed.