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19.1.2016 Feed



John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a work of the minimalist period that was very much a 1980s phenomenon. How has it withstood the passage of time?

I’m not altogether a minimalism fan, and I’ve only really discovered the music of Adams since he partially abandoned it. Because the problem with minimalism is that the music doesn’t assign the performer the traditional role of interpreter, and even the conductor often finds himself being just a policeman on point-duty. Short Ride in a Fast Machine is above all an interesting intellectual exercise. The first time I saw the score, I was astonished at how complicated it looked, because the music sounds very simple.

It doesn’t necessarily offer vast room for interpretation, but there’s something very interesting about the way the material transforms. The performers have to concentrate very hard on the rhythms, otherwise the whole machine stalls and crashes into a wall.

Adams violin concerto and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony share the theme of persecution and violence. The programme was, of course, planned ages ago, but it’s difficult not to interpret it as a comment on the disturbing events in recent history.

Each season, there are one or two programmes that turn out to be surprisingly topical. It was, for example, quite by chance that I programmed Strauss’s Metamorphosen for the very day the USA-led Allied forces launched their attack on Iraq. Symphony concerts are not necessarily designed to comment on current events, but if they do, the programme planning has done its job in the best possible way. Right now, both Russia and the Islamic world are in turmoil, so the message of both the great works in the concert could not be more topical.

Admittedly any feelings the concert may arouse will not necessarily have a very lasting impact in this disparate world of ours, full of disturbing factors. But then nor did the music of Shostakovich cause any revolutions. In their own way, the performances of the fifth symphony were nevertheless important in Soviet Russia, and maybe they gave people strength to struggle on.

Though the world has changed since the days of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, it nevertheless seems to carry a very special aura. Is this real or just a figment of the imagination?

It’s difficult to say whether it’s because we know the story around the work, or whether it would impress us in any case. The end of the finale to the fifth symphony has a strong, ceremonial feel, and I can well imagine how the astounded audience listening to it at the first performance rose to its feet as if in a trance. The overwhelming power of the music would possibly not be any less even if we didn’t know the background, because the best music always has a built-in force.

There’s an amusing story attached to the performances that followed the premiere. When Moscow heard about the audience hysteria the symphony had caused in Leningrad, the party sent two officials along to the next performances. Their names were even recorded: they were comrades Surin and Yarustovsky. Night after night they observed the clearly-moved audience and reckoned the listeners had been carefully chosen to achieve the effect the composer wished for. A test performance was held to which only confirmed Bolsheviks were invited, but the result was exactly the same: they, too, were absolutely astounded. The deflated comrades made their way home.

Why does John Adams call his Scheherezade.2 a symphony for violin and orchestra and not a concerto?

The reason presumably lies above all in the size. Because a concerto is seldom so capacious. If Brahms had called his piano concertos symphonies for piano and orchestra, I’d have bought that too: one feature of a symphony is length. Adams’s designation underlines the fact that the orchestra has an enormous role; it’s much more than a traditional concerto accompaniment. Maybe it’s also a reciprocation to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade: there, too, the violin is cast as the narrator.

In what way does the work comment on the world today?

An American might address the problems of Islam from a slightly different perspective from a European. Of course here, too, people are aware that the status of women is one of the biggest and most pressing problems.

A week ago the concerto soloist Leila Josefowicz sent me an email with some musical instructions and also a link to an article in the New York Times about the murder of the Afghan Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old student who was tortured and killed by an angry mob under the very eyes of the police for desecrating a copy of the Koran. She was tossed off a roof and trampled to death. Social media are full of phone videos made by bystanders. In actual fact she was innocent. No one has been punished.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo