It took John Adams’ major orchestral opus “Harmonielehre” 30 years to find its way to a San Diego Symphony program, but Friday’s (Oct. 23) stellar performance of the work under the authoritative baton of Edo de Waart was worth the wait.In the early 1980s, when de Waart was Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and Adams its composer in residence, the orchestra commisioned this broadly scaled work—an act of faith, because at that time the composer had written none of the operas that later brought him international acclaim. Working closely with Adams, de Waart conducted the premiere of “Harmonielehre” in March 1985 and made the first recording a few days later. Not surprisingly, the work has become Adams’ calling card in orchestral circles.
Although the three-movement “Harmonielehre” is not called a symphony, its brilliant forte sections separated by emotionally probing ruminations and its opulent orchestration certainly suggest symphonic scope. At 45 minutes, it is longer than a typical Jean Sibelius symphony but shorter than any Gustav Mahler symphony. The Adams sports the massive orchestra of the latter and some of the dark, brooding themes associated with the former. In his less driving sections, Adams’ lanky, minor mode themes also salute the plush noir and mystery film scores from Hollywood’s golden era.
Responding to de Waart’s immaculate, ardent conducting, the San Diego Symphony has rarely sounded so resplendent and passionate: clean and precise ensembles in spite of Adams’ constant meter changes, soaring and beautifully shaped solos from winds and strings, and an assured sense of direction even in those occasional minimalist sections with their potentially numbing iterations.
Among the many outstanding solos throughout “Harmonielehre,” I should note the fine work of Principal Trumpet Micah Wilkinson, Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber, and Principal Flute Rose Lombardo. All of the percussion section players worked overtime, especially the mallet players. Adams enjoys turning the tables, having an ensemble of marimbas, xylophone and glockenspiel lead his driving themes, with the strings adding mere ornamental support.
Friday’s audience received the unfamiliar work with raucous approval, bringing back de Waart for several enthusiastic curtain calls.The young Canadian violinist James Ehnes imbued the Beethoven Violin Concerto with a level of refinement and consistently lustrous tone that was almost too good to be true. Perhaps because his poise and deft treatment of every flourish was so breathtaking, de Waart subtly emphasized the composer’s harmonic provocations in the orchestra to balance the equation. Ehnes’ fleet, jocund account of the Rondo finale served as his encore.