John Adams stated that “City Noir” is the final panel of a California triptych with the previous two panels being “Eldorado” and “The Dharma at Big Sur”. In truth, whilst it has the California as a common thread this work dwarfs the other two as John Adams unleashes his full range of orchestral resources and techniques; much as he did in “Harmonielehre” and “Naïve and Sentimental Music”. This is a big, rich score that, like some other contemporary works blurs the distinction between the symphony and symphonic poem. If “Harmonielehre” and “Naïve and Sentimental Music” are symphonies then this work could take the title “Symphony no 3” despite the evocative titles of the three movements.
“City Noir” contains the same aching lyricism found in parts of “Harmonielehre” the greater harmonic daring of “Naïve and Sentimental Music” and rhythmic excitement found in both. It adds the film noir cool jazz atmosphere with a rich dark sensuality: it’s a heady mix indeed. John Adams pointed out Darius Milhaud’s symphonic jazz as an influence but there are so many other reference points: Bernstein, Villa Lobos in his “Choros” and “Bachianas”, Debussy and Stravinsky in the final section for starters. There are ravishing solos for the trumpet, trombone and, not surprisingly, the saxophone along the way. It is possible to listen to this as one continuous movement which at around 35 minutes never outlasts its welcome.
This is undoubtedly one of John Adams’ most major orchestral scores to date, which Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic showcase so effectively in this live recording a the Walt Disney Concert Hall. As an MP3 download this represents extraordinary value for money. If I have one quibble it is that the album art writes the conductor and orchestra large and you have to squint to read whose work they’re playing. That is a very minor quibble and I recommend this wholeheartedly.
Another brilliant symphonic composition from John Adams which takes a couple of listens to really take hold of but once you are there it is tremendously rewarding. Every bit as good as other recent orchestral works such as the brilliant 'Naive and Sentimental Music' and 'Guide to Strange Places'. Plenty of passion and emotion, very lyrical but at times also very dark, terrific instrumental writing from this creative genius.
Exciting, and a real ear opener. I'm certainly ready to listen to this again and again, and wanting to hear more of John Adams. He is sometimes criticised for sounding too much in the european tradition, but I believe his melding of genres - including jazz - can be an enriching experience for the open listener.