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John Adams's Absolute Jest, for string quartet and orchestra, was unveiled on a US tour by the San Francisco Symphony and St Lawrence String Quartet in March.

“One of John Adams’ rarest and most valuable gifts as a composer is his sense of humour, an ability, shared with Haydn and few others, to be truly comical.” So wrote the San Francisco Chronicle reviewing the premiere in March of Adams’s new work for string quartet and orchestra, Absolute Jest, with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The ‘Jest’ of the title relates to the late scherzos of Beethoven, which for Adams blended ecstatic energy, humour and profundity, unique in history, providing him with the motivic source material for his new work.

The St Lawrence String Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony toured Absolute Jest around the USA, as part of its American Mavericks series, visiting Chicago, Ann Arbor and Carnegie Hall in New York, attracting enthusiastic audience reactions throughout. The UK premiere is scheduled for January 2013 with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican under the baton of the composer, again with the St Lawrence String Quartet who have exclusivity until March 2013.

“Adams’ single-movement opus for string quartet and orchestra is an audacious and affectionate riff on Beethoven’s scherzos. Dense, roiling and furiously inventive, it emerges as a gripping 25-minute sonic joy ride… You can hear the echoes of Beethoven throughout the piece – chopped, remixed, inside out and upside down, redistributed to the string quartet and throughout the orchestra – and you can almost see the composer smiling at the results.

“Of particular interest is the way Adams writes for the ‘solo’ string quartet – in this case, the phenomenally skilled, and marvellously incisive St Lawrence String Quartet, for whom it was composed. As soloists, they are often subsumed in the orchestral sound. When they emerge, it’s bracing, magical, with new vistas suddenly glimpsed in Adams’ fervent sound world. Absolute Jest may be best described as a memory piece; in its final measures, it recedes in a slow fade, a backward glance to Beethoven’s majesty. Yet, for most of its length, it is quintessential Adams: restless, propulsive and, like most of this composer’s music, arrestingly beautiful.”
Musical America

“The wedding between string quartet and orchestra was masterly.”
Wall Street Journal

Adams’s newest work is his full-evening oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, premiered in Los Angeles last month conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. A staged version by Peter Sellars will be presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Spring 2013 followed by an international tour.

2012 has seen the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to Beijing and the 25th anniversary of Adams’s opera Nixon in China. Productions have been staged at the Châtelet in Paris and San Francisco Opera, and Adams conducts concert performances this summer at the BBC Proms in London and the Musikfest in Berlin with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

>  Further information on Work: Absolute Jest

Photo: Margaretta Mitchell

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