SAMUEL CARL ADAMS
Drift and Providence
Today Samuel Adams lives in Brooklyn, where he composed Drift
and Providence, but the genesis of the piece lies in
California. "I seriously view myself as a Californian," says Adams,
"emotionally and psychologically and in terms of the literature
that I like to read." He grew up in the Bay Area, and his
parents—composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O'Grady—met
while working at the San Francisco Symphony. He played jazz in high
school, hiked in the Sierras, and visited composer Lou Harrison in
Aptos. Now Samuel Adams is a New Yorker. Drift and
Providence, he says, "is about discovering the West and my own
personality by way of departing."
"California" and "West Coast" mean different things to different
people, but to Samuel Adams both mean the San Francisco Bay Area.
"For me, Drift and Providence addresses certain
things about the West and its music." It addresses, he says, a West
Coast state of mind, and also the contrasts between the West Coast
and what can be discovered by moving away. The titles of its five
movements—played without pause—suggest not only places in San
Francisco (Embarcadero and Divisadero), but archetypal departures
Water and wind are immediately apparent in the
Drift of the work's title, even more so in the
opening Embarcadero (Spanish for "wharf"), with its wash of string
sonorities aerated by brass players exhaling through the chambers
of their instruments, while sizzle cymbals and vibraphones add soft
high-frequency splashes. The passage is tonally comfortable, but a
few out-of-context "blue" notes distort that familiarity. The
metallic noise created by scraped cowbells and brake drums ensures
that the music is not altogether fog-bound. That's the East Coast
influence, the machinery that is such a part of New York
Computerized sound processing also builds a bridge between natural
and man-made, wood and metal, East and West. Throughout Drift
and Providence, Adams controls a laptop that enhances certain
frequencies emanating from the amplified percussion section.
Pauses occur throughout. Although some mark the divisions
between the work's five movements, others serve as qualitative or
emotional signifiers. "Silences can be really loud," says Adams.
"They can do so much to the material and for me every one of them
serves a different function. Early in the piece they heighten the
tentative or lost quality, and towards the end they
serve a heightened sense of intensity."
Recurring over the course of Embarcadero is a descending stepwise
figure, played by oboe and clarinet, that begins innocuously enough
as two notes but soon becomes three. "It's a little jazz tune,"
explains Adams. "It's all over the place."
Embarcadero is followed by the faster-moving Drift
I, which introduces a series of rolled chords in the vibraphones.
This movement is more overtly dramatic, building to a climactic
outburst marked by a trumpet restatement of the "little jazz tune."
A vigorous passage evoking big-city bling arises, characterized by
downward-cascading figures in the winds and brass. A loud lunge to
a triple-forte is followed by a sudden long silence,
leading directly to Divisadero.
A divisadero is a high place from which one can
observe an extensive area. Thus it connotes distance and separation
along with the idea of "dividing" one thing from another. (The San
Francisco street Divisadero was originally the dividing line
between the city and the Presidio.) The third-movement Divisadero
reflects that etymology by looking both backwards and forwards.
Because it opens with material similar to
Embarcadero, it reminds us of the journey just
taken, but soon enough it ventures into new territories.
As Divisadero nears its conclusion, the undulating
string figures and brass-instrument exhalations from the work's
opening return. Sustained chords in the winds usher in Drift II, a
short transitional movement that opens with the same rolled
vibraphone chords that began Drift I. The tempo soon begins
steadily increasing and culminates in a triple-forte,
leading immediately into the final movement.
Providence follows, the only one of the work's five
movements that opens at high volume. That volume is sustained for
most of the movement's length, and after a
quadruple-forte outburst, the work ends in a soft
cascade of winds and brass exhalations over the metallic wash of
scraped brake drums and cowbells that characterizes the
Adams speaks of Providence as "a summation; in a certain way it's
triumphant, in a certain respect it's also a bit terrifying." But
it has not been Adams's intention to settle anything. "On first
listening, there are things that aren't so clear. I like things to
be kind of murky sometimes. That feeling of being a little bit
unclear, a little ambiguous—that's welcome. It's what the piece is
© 2012 San Francisco Symphony
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Beethoven's first three piano concertos make something striking of
the first solo entrance. But here, in this most gently spoken and
poetic of his concertos, Beethoven makes his most radical opening.
He begins with the piano alone. It is a move without
A soft, densely voiced, dolce chord leads to a brief
phrase, arresting in its subtle rhythmic imbalance. The greater
wonder is the orchestra's hushed, sensitive and far-seeing,
harmonically remote response. The rhythmic elasticity of the first
solo-and-orchestra statement-and-response foreshadows an uncommon
range of pace.
The second movement has become the concerto's most famous. Its
comparison to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music was for
years attributed to Liszt, though more recently musicologist Owen
Jander pointed out that it was Adolph Bernard Marx "who first began
to bring the Orpheus program of the Fourth Piano Concerto into
focus" in his Beethoven biography of 1859. In this second movement,
the orchestra is loud, staccato, in stark octaves. The piano is
soft, flowing, songful. At the end, after a truly Orphic cadenza,
the orchestra has learned the piano's way. Only the cellos and
basses remember their opening music, and their mutterings are
Until the conclusion of this sublime movement, this is Beethoven's
most quietly scored piano concerto. In the finale, which takes a
charmingly Haydnesque, oblique approach to the question of how to
resume the work after the evocative scene just played, trumpets and
drums appear for the first time. Not that this movement is in any
way grand; rather, it is lyrical and witty. It is also, with its
two sections of violas, given to outrageously lush sounds.
© 2012 San Francisco Symphony
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Brahms was already 42 when his First Symphony was introduced—that
story has been told often. Composers such as Haydn and Mozart and
Beethoven had tackled symphony writing much earlier. Their music
had evolved into a Great Tradition, a tradition in which Brahms saw
a role for himself.
He was intimidated by Beethoven. "You have no idea what it's like
to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you," he said.
But when this symphony 14 years in the writing was unveiled,
conductor Hans von Bülow called it Beethoven's Tenth: the greatest
symphony since The Giant's Ninth had first been heard in
Brahms announces his arrival as a symphonist with an outburst of
anguished dissonance over pounding timpani. We know we are in the
presence of something serious. Brahms has us here, and now he lets
the turbulence subside, plucked strings imitating the timpani
before yearning phrases lead back into the fierce opening. Again
the fury recedes, and the oboe offers a supplication, imitated by
other winds and low strings, the dynamics dropping into
inaudibility, stopping movement. This is like a rifle cocked.
Brahms squeezes the trigger, and the music explodes into some of
the most violent sounds he would ever create. In their midst and
surrounded by blazing fanfares comes the contrast of a chorale-like
passage that looks toward the triumph in which the symphony will
The Andante is a movement of bittersweet beauty, solo violin and
first horn joining at last in a magical duet. Next comes an
intermezzo, first an innocent dance-like tune, then two contrasting
sections, one a manic variant of the innocent dance, the other
broader and nobler. With hardly a pause, the finale begins, a great
crush of sound that thrusts us back into the world of the first
movement. A timpani roll announces a halt, leading to a horn call
in miraculously contrasting major over shimmering strings. The
sonic vista broadens into a view from an alpine summit, and
trombones offer a majestic chorale. All this introduces the big
tune, which some of the first listeners compared to Beethoven's
"Ode to Joy" in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.
As in the first movement, the ensuing struggles are huge. But those
took place in a locked room, the interior space of a mind obsessed
with a single idea. Here the action unfolds on an open field. The
destination isn't clear until the last moments. Brahms's coda grows
ever more wild until the orchestra with one ecstatic voice repeats
the chorale that the trombones had enunciated earlier. With a last
flourish, Brahms ends this symphony so long in the making and so
inexhaustible in its power to thrill and transport listeners.
© 2012 San Francisco Symphony