John Adams: A Portrait

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: John Adams
LABELS: Arthaus
WORKS: El niño (excerpts); Gnarly Buttons; Eight Lines
PERFORMER: André Trouttet (clarinet); Ensemble InterContemporain/Jonathan Nott (Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2000)
CATALOGUE NO: 100 322

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Although nothing is specified in the packaging or credits, the 50-minute ‘Portrait’ on this DVD has presumably been designed for showing on TV as an introduction to Channel 4’s film of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, due to be screened this month. The documentary features clips of the soundtrack being made in the recording studio and from the cruise-ship set in Malta. The opera’s co-creators, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, make frequent appearances and the narrative emphasis generally is on Adams’s stage works (the intercutting between the Nixon in China staging and newsreel is particularly telling, and there are some stirring excerpts from the Paris El niño premiere).

The Klinghoffer team presents a convincing case against that work’s original charges of anti-Semitism and insensitive ‘humanising’ of the terrorist characters, but it might have been fruitful to have heard some conflicting opinions expressed. In fact, this is a problem with the film as a whole, which is very much an Adams love-in. Fortunately he is an articulate interviewee and he explains the growth of his creative persona with clarity and enthusiasm – his account of his flight from Harvard modernism to West Coast minimalism is especially illuminating. But beyond the obviously favourable words from Sellars, Goodman and Michael Tilson Thomas, no one else is interviewed to make the film a more rounded, critical portrait.

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The rest of the DVD is devoted to a concert of American music given at the Châtelet in Paris by Ensemble InterContemporain. Adams’s Gnarly Buttons and Chamber Concerto share the programme with Reich’s interminable Eight Lines and two of Conlon Nancarrow’s quirky Player Piano Studies arranged for ensemble. The playing has real panache, but 80 minutes of relentless American energy makes for exhausting listening. Matthew Rye