The Amsterdam-based Alma Quartet fosters varied audiences and adventurous collaborations. They play in packed night clubs with top DJs, premiere daring new works by experimental composers, or simply perform the standard repertoire at top notch level. On 28 April they join forces with the Dutch percussionist Dominique Vleeshouwers in the Concertgebouw for a concert showcasing Samuel Adams.
Sam Adams (San Francisco, 1985) had been named composer in residence of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2020-2021, which capacity he would spend three months in the city. Inspired by the Dutch capital he was to compose a new work for the Alma Quartet, but due to the pandemic, his residency was postponed until the next season. – When covid once again threw a spanner in the works. The blog underneath is an adaptation of my article for Preludium, the joint magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The commissioned work fell prey to the pandemic as well. Instead, the deferred programme now includes two Dutch premieres: ‘Field’ for solo percussion and Sundial for string quartet and percussion. Despite the various mishaps, Marc Daniel van Biemen, first violinist of the Alma Quartet looks forward to the concert: ‘We put together our programme in close consultation with Sam, who I became friends with at the Yale School of Music.’
The concert opens with ‘Field’ for percussion solo, the third movement from Adams’ full-length ballet Lyra, which premiered in October 2021 and recently appeared on CD. Inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice the five-minute fragment is set for vibraphone, snare drums, bongo and bass drum. Repetitive motifs in the high registers of the vibraphone in particular are interspersed with field recordings of creaking and abrasive sounds that evoke an African atmosphere.
In transit by the Dutch composer Joey Roukens is set for string quartet and percussion. Repetitive patterns create a hallucinatory atmosphere that abruptly turns into a sonorous lament. Then again the musicians take an unexpected new turn, working up to a climax of furious strokes on the strings and ferocious blows on a snare drum. Roukens’ grooving syncopation excellently matches Adams’ energy.
Just when you think it’s finished, Roukens serves up a sweet-voiced chorale that seems to float weightlessly in space. ‘We love it that In transit occasionally seems to take a wrong turn’, says Van Biemen, ‘we like to put the audience on the wrong track.’ It was his suggestion to programme Roukens: ‘It was a great shame to only play along with Dominique Vleeshouwers in Sam’s piece.’
REVOLUTION CAPTURED IN SOUND
Carrot Revolution by Gabriella Smith was proposed by Adams, though. Van Biemen: ‘Sam was very enthusiastic about her quartet and when I listened to it, I had a euphoric response myself. What a splendid performance piece!’
Smith often draws inspiration from the environment. She was interested in nature conservation as a teenager and spent five years volunteering at a songbird research project in Point Reyes, California. She started playing the violin when she was seven and began composing shortly afterwards. – One of her teachers was John Adams, Sam’s father.
Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution is an irrepressibly propelling tangle of fierce bowing, sweeping outbursts, splashing pizzicati and wild drumming on the cello; a revolution captured in sound.Tweet
Smith’s quartet is one long, irrepressibly propelling tangle of fierce bowing, sweeping outbursts, splashing pizzicati and wild drumming on the cello; a revolution captured in sound. After about eight minutes, both the energy and volume decrease, with descending lines creating an uneasy atmosphere. As if flowers are hanging their heads for lack of water. Like a laboriously starting engine, the cello resumes its percussive drumming, taking the other players in tow. Their frenetic screeching glissandi arrive at a swirling, fortissimo climax which ends abruptly in nothingness.
The odd piece out seems to be Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but Van Biemen thinks otherwise: ‘A concert inspired by America simply wouldn’t be complete without the ultimate work for string quartet’, he says. ‘Everyone knows it, this second movement of Barber’s String Quartet from 1936 is one of the most played classical works ever.’
With its melancholy tone and drawn-out melodies, Adagio for Strings points forward to the ‘new spiritual music’ of composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, with whom Barber shares his love for a rich tonal sound world. This connects seamlessly with Adams’ Sundial for string quartet and percussion.
Adams concurs: ‘Harmony plays an important role in all my music. In Sundial I treat the five voices somewhat like the reverb pedal of a piano; the strings extend the percussion sounds and vice versa, creating a kind of “hyper-resonance”. The percussion only consists of metal instruments: vibraphone, crotales and cowbells. Their somewhat out of tune sound is perhaps best known from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and combines beautifully with the precise, almost sterile sound of the vibraphone.’
‘Sundial works exactly like its namesake’, explains Adams: ‘The five instruments project a series of musical shadows that, in constant motion, reveal the passage of time in the shape of an arc. And like a sundial, when the music is warmest, the shadows are least transparent.’
In Sam Adams’ Sundial the string quartet and percussion project a series of musical shadows that, in constant motion, reveal the passage of time in the shape of an arc.Tweet
‘Most of the work is made of two distinct types of music: “rocking” music of fast, pulsing dual harmonies swaying back and forth, and “cyclic” music of slightly off-kilter contrapuntal figurations that blossom over long stretches of time. Only in the final minutes does the music break out of these two types of material, ascending to a ringing, intensely bright conclusion.’
DAUNTING BUT EXCITING
The programme is definitely interesting, but is the combination of strings and percussion not daunting? Van Biemen: ‘Of course it is a challenge to find the right balance in dynamics. Also, we must play lyrically while performing fairly rhythmic music. However, I find this combination particularly attractive because the overall timbre is totally different from that of regular quintet line-ups.’
Van Biemen concludes with gusto: ‘I really look forward to taking the audience along on an exciting musical adventure!’