CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 10/30/08
F. Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 100 ("Military") in G major. John Adams: Gnarly Buttons. Albert Roussel: Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Op. 42. (Franklin Cohen, cl.; Marc Minkowski, cond.)
A contronym is a word or phrase that, depending on its context, can mean its own opposite. And contronyms are not as rare in English as you might think. You and your spouse might "cleave" to one another-two people holding together as if they are one; but if you cleave a log, you're separating one thing into two. Similarly, dusting your living room furniture removes little particles, while dusting a cake with sugar puts little particles in place.
You'll find many contronyms in slang, where "bad" has meant "good" since the nineteenth century. And it was one of these which inspired the John Adams work on this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts. Adams heard his kids use the word "gnarly," which can mean either "really disagreeable" or "really neat"—or, for that matter, "bumpy" or "challenging." And in the fullness of time the world had Adams' Gnarly Buttons, a three-movement work for solo clarinet and chamber ensemble.
The gold-standard recording of the work features Michael Collins as soloist and Adams himself as conductor. And yet the Gnarly Buttons on that Nonesuch CD isn't quite the Gnarly Buttons performed here. For the final published version of the work, Adams removed some keyboard doubling at the work's outset, and now Buttons begins with some thirty bars of unaccompanied clarinet. That gives the soloist—in this case, the Orchestra's own Franklin Cohen:mdash;more freedom. But I found, as I listened Thursday evening, that I missed the rigid, ritualistic quality encouraged by the old arrangement, which seems entirely in keeping with Adams' fanciful idea of the opening theme as an imaginary hymn.
It's possible that the performance, led by guest conductor Marc Minkowski, might have benefited from more rehearsal. The first movement lost focus about two-thirds of the way in. But the reading was saved by the plain-spoken dignity Cohen brought to the third movement, said to take its emotional coloring from Adams' father's struggle with Alzheimer's.
For his part, Minkowski seemed a somewhat elusive conductor. The opening movement of Haydn's "Military" Symphony, which opened the concert, was highly variable in quality, shifting from clarity to blurriness with unnerving suddenness. Minkowski's version of Albert Roussel's Third Symphony had some interesting details-his slow sidle into the second movement's second section, for example. But it remained a solid reading which didn't quite have the coherence of the best recorded versions.
In the final analysis, Thursday's concert had to stand or fall on the merits of the music itself, rather than Minkowski's ideas about the music. Fortunately, those merits are considerable. Adams' third movement, Roussel's second: casual classical listeners might not know this music, but it's as affecting as anything you'll typically hear. At the concert's end, Minkowski gave his copy of Roussel's score an affectionate pat. It was both a winningly humble gesture and as good a summary of this concert as one might hope to find.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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