The Dharma at Big Sur

Tracy Silverman, electric violin; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Adams

One of the most exciting live performances I attended a year ago was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen doing John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur in L.A.’s Disney Hall with electric violinist Tracy Silverman. What made it so exciting for me wasn’t just that it was my first time at Disney Hall—which is a “must-see” and “must-hear music in” venue—or that Silverman on stage acted like and was treated like a rock star—that sort of thing usually doesn’t press my buttons. What always does, however, is the use of alternate tunings. But Adams writing microtonal music, as thrilling as that prospect is, isn’t the only reason Dharma was such hit with me. This composition ties together earlier generations’ maverick tendencies and then responds to them in a completely contemporary and personal way. Dharma‘s two movements honor Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, respectively, with music that is alternately reflective and ecstatic. That these hommages are still throroughly Adams and also explore just intonation (sadly, though, not with the whole orchestra) are an added bonus. Nonesuch’s new recording pairs Dharma with another recent Adams work that connects him to his antecedents, My Father Knew Charles Ives. But, I suppose in an effort to guarantee that each of these two substantial half-hour compositions is perceived as self-contained, each is featured on a separate CD. They should’ve just issued these two pieces on an LP!

—FJO