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WSJ Review | Salonen Conducts a Bewitching Premiere in San Francisco

"In selecting Mr. Hanick as soloist, Mr. Adams has found a kindred spirit."


Excerpt from a Music Review by David Mermelstein

for The Wall Street Journal

The San Francisco Symphony with music director and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and Conor Hanick on piano performing the premiere of Samuel Adams's ‘No Such Spring’ on Thursday

Photo Credit: Stefan Cohen


Composer Samuel Adams’s piano concerto ‘No Such Spring,’ programmed with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, proved heartfelt and imaginative in its performance by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.


The world’s great symphony orchestras accomplish many things beyond introducing the hitherto uninitiated to the wonders of Mozart and Mahler. Among the most important is calling attention to present-day talent. The imprimatur of a well-established orchestra, especially when led by an eminent music director, can elevate the status of composers or soloists not yet widely known, training unique attention on their work. Such an occasion occurred on Thursday night at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, when the San Francisco Symphony, led by its music director, the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, gave the premiere of Samuel Adams’s “No Such Spring,” a piano concerto with Conor Hanick as soloist—a major work as appealing as it is thought-provoking, and as heartfelt as it is inventive.


Mr. Adams is not entirely unknown to this orchestra’s patrons; the ensemble’s previous music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, conducted two large works by this now-37-year-old composer roughly a decade ago. But by Mr. Adams’s own account, this new piece, dedicated to Messrs. Hanick and Salonen and the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, represents something of a breakthrough for him, a fusion of the musically complex with the aurally accessible.


The initial commission was offered shortly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, just as the orchestra was transitioning from Mr. Thomas’s quarter-century tenure to Mr. Salonen’s nascent one. But as the pandemic forced various delays, the composer veered considerably from his original vision. What emerged as the pandemic ebbed was an altered piece for an altered world. And one of the biggest changes was the inclusion of a solo pianist.


In its current form, this mercurial 30-minute work in three movements (performed without pauses) consistently beguiles the ear. Central to its appeal are its yearning piano part and burly, sometimes brutish, orchestral music. But the piece is further enhanced with a bevy of novel instrumental choices. I was particularly bewitched by the recurring twinned harps, sounding jazzy earlier in the concerto and offering a Zen-like calm near its end. And who could resist the jarring sandpaper blocks and washboard among the vast percussion battery—to say nothing of the disconcerting eruptions of the ratchet and the scraped brake drum?


Mr. Adams’s voice is his own, but there are echoes in his score, intentional or otherwise, of those who came before him. Music lovers familiar with the work of his father, the composer John Adams, whose shadow looms large throughout the classical world, will detect some of his signature gestures within this work—those surging arpeggiated string figurations, for example. But one can also detect Ives and Copland whispering in the younger Mr. Adams’s ear. I even heard dashes of Gershwin and Sondheim—and, touchingly, Beethoven. There’s also no escaping Stravinsky. What matters, though, is the way Mr. Adams makes it all work without ever tripping into pastiche, which is no mean feat.


In selecting Mr. Hanick as soloist, Mr. Adams has found a kindred spirit. The pianist has all the right attributes for a modern keyboard artist—impressive technique, obvious intelligence and a yen for adventure. But he has something else as well, an abundant love for the piano’s tonal variety. And at crucial points in Mr. Adams’s piece, chief among them the repeated raindrop motif and the concerto’s resigned conclusion, Mr. Hanick brought that quality to bear.


Read original Music Review in full in the WSJ here.

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