John Adams may be known best for his operas, but none has yet convinced me that he is a composer with a true gift for the stage, let alone the ability to write effectively and idiomatically for the voice. His instrumental music is something else again, in particular his large-scale pieces for orchestra, which become increasingly inventive and self-confident the farther he gets from his minimalist roots. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic recently brought Adams’s latest big score to Avery Fisher Hall: Naive and Sentimental Music, in three movements and lasting nearly an hour, a stunning work I’m sure we will be hearing often in the future.
The only thing wrong with the piece may be its title. In a tortured program note that makes one fear the worst, Adams explains that his music attempts to embody the concept of “naive” and “sentimental” as defined by Schiller and applied to the two basic types of creative beings: the naive, who produce freely and unconsciously simply because they must, and the sentimental, who seek to bend nature to their will and promote an agenda. Just how this nice aesthetic distinction has shaped Adams’s score may one day become the subject of a Ph.D. dissertation. Until then, the naive will enjoy this eventful journey as a purely musical experience, one that begins by tracing the adventures of an extraordinary long-lined melody, continues with a moving meditation on the death of innocence, and winds up in a typically Adamsian explosion of rhythmic energy. In a virtuoso performance, Salonen and his orchestra allowed the sentimental to savor fully the score’s eloquent rhetoric, instrumental brilliance, and fastidious working-out of every absorbing detail.