BSO plays major Adams work, led by the composer

Composer John Adams.

Talk about an authoritative performance. Nothing like having an eminent composer on hand to conduct one of his greatest works.

John Adams led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night in a riveting account of his "Harmonielehre," the epic 1985 score that served as a kind of personal turning point.


Here, Adams fused his minimalist style with something more resonant of the past, allowing for harmonies that Wagner would have felt at home, and long melodic lines capable of exuding an intense lyrical pull. In the end, though, it's pure Adams — rich in texture and expressive content.

Rather rich in irony, too. The title comes from a 1911 book about harmony by Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian-born composer who would go on to revolutionize Western music with a complex 12-tone system aimed at turning atonality into normality.


Adams, who never warmed up to the Schoenbergian method, makes his "Harmonielehre" a kind of defiant affirmation of traditional tonal values, all the while taking his distinctive brand of minimalism to the max.

Dreams play a part in the piece, including one Adams had of a supertanker rising above the San Francisco Bay, and another about his daughter being carried on the shoulder of a mystic theologian. All of the allusions and motivations add up to a three-movement journey that is at once retro and contemporary, and as eventful as a symphony by Mahler.

Last programmed by the BSO 26 years ago, when David Zinman conducted, "Harmonielehre" deserves to be heard more often. On Thursday, Adams drew a vibrant, polished response from the orchestra; the music seemed to grab hold of the players (and at least most of the audience).

The strings produced a ruby-dark sound for the moodiest passages, especially in "The Anfortas Wound," the middle movement inspired by the medieval legend of the knight whose ailment could not be healed. The aching close of that movement had a profound weight.

There was admirable depth to the brass efforts, bright coloring from the woodwinds and great character from the percussionists.

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The orchestra hit a terrific stride in the last minutes of "Harmonielehre," with its exhilarating harmonic tug of war, won, just in time, by rapturous E-flat major — the home key of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, which followed intermission. (The printed program listed the concerto first; placing it last made better sense.)

Jeremy Denk, one of the most interesting pianists on today's scene, tackled the Beethoven work, nicknamed "Emperor" for its grand scale. The concerto doesn't have to be underlined to be effective, and Denk approached it with a refreshingly understated bravura.

The pianist certainly produced sufficient tone and expressive impact, but what caught the ear most was the sensitive, spontaneous phrasing and the pearly quality of his tone when spinning out melodic lines with his right hand.


The way Denk articulated the suspenseful transition to the rambunctious finale was a major highlight in a performance that also had the benefit of careful partnering from Adams and buoyant, cohesive work from the BSO throughout.

Denk's encore, from Bach's "Goldberg Variations," put a subtle cap on the evening.

The BSO presents an Off the Cuff program focusing on Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with conductor John Adams and pianist Jeremy Denk at 7 tonight at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. The concerto and Adams' "Harmonielehre" will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 410-783-8000, or go to