BERKELEY -- Samuel Adams' new Violin Concerto is a work of quiet and spellbinding feats and effects, a work of imagination that releases the listener's imagination. Attending its world premiere Thursday at Zellerbach Hall was like riding on a sound cloud: There, high above, was the solo violinist, spinning long lyric lines that twist and fan out like kite ribbons; and there, way down below, was the orchestra, a landscape of gentle surges and eddies and strategic colorized plumes, drifting up toward the kite.
The sensation of great distances, of distinct levels of altitude and degrees of light -- it was extraordinary, and the result was a dramatic journey across the concerto's four movements, which last close to half an hour. It didn't hurt that there was a brilliant soloist aboard for this musical aerial show: Anthony Marwood, a violinist who dispatches any challenge with sturdy elegance and seductive tone. And then there was the Berkeley Symphony, which commissioned this work and performed it with keen focus under the leadership of its music director and conductor Joana Carneiro.
Samuel Adams -- and if you've been living under a rock, he is the son of composer John Adams -- grew up in Berkeley, studied at Stanford and Yale, moved to Brooklyn and recently returned to Oakland. He is 28 and (following "Drift and Providence" for the San Francisco Symphony and String Quartet in Five Movements for the St. Lawrence String Quartet) this is his third major piece to be performed locally in not much more than a year. (You can hear more of his music -- shorter works for less elaborate ensembles -- in the coming days and weeks from Mobius Trio and Diablo Ballet.)
He is emerging as a composer to be trusted. He has a voice. His scoring is confident, elegant, dappled with detail and generally characterized by understatement and intimacy. There is a dreaminess of mood and a sense that shadows aren't very far away. For instance, in the Violin Concerto, what are those faraway plumes of color and smoke that we keep hearing and seeing (or so it seemed Thursday) down there on the ground? Explosions? Cannon fire? Fireworks? Mind musings?
Don't get me wrong; this isn't some soundtrack. It's closer to a symphonic tone poem, in that it is continually evocative. Or one can simply experience it as music that grips, that commands the ear to follow.
Composed in "two acts," each containing two connected movements, the concerto begins on a short pastoral note among the strings, like an echo of Copland.
The action quickly moves out and up to the solo violinist, who is given a series of cadenzas -- lyric, long-noted and ribbony, with a modicum of double-stops and trick moves, all of it sounding easy under Marwood's fingers and bow. These cadenzas keep emerging, briefly, as the violin moves in and out of the greater orchestral flow, here mimicked by piccolos, or there riding high above some new swing rhythm (Adams has worked as a jazz bassist) as one of the percussionists picks up a set of brushes.
The third movement (titled "aria: patiently waiting for the past to come") is composed of fragments of a Baroque ritornello form, the composer explains in his program notes. These are some of the work's most arresting passages: The theme stretches out ever so slowly and sensuously, as the textures become vaporous and as eerie overtones are coaxed from metal bowls in the percussion section.
In the concerto's final moments, the orchestra begins to blush with color, as if fragile blossoms are about to open. Here Adams toys with one of his father's radiant moments of awakening, but he pulls back from the heat, and the piece thins and gradually dissolves, perhaps taking two or three minutes more than needed to do so. But the concerto ends with great effect -- like a pop tune on a cloud, a fabulous descending chord sequence passes the solo violin as it ascends on open strings and at last vanishes into nothingness.
(A note for insiders: Over the last year or two, the composer has been billed as Samuel Carl Adams. With this program, he has dropped the "Carl" and become plain old Samuel Adams.)
Once again, Carneiro gave her audience a varied and imaginative program. It began with Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite: not as crisp or propulsive as this work can be, though the Tarantella sparkled with detail and charm. After intermission, Carneiro led a superb performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 ("Scottish"). The strings sounded great: lush and sweet. The Adagio was especially effective, sweepingly shaped by the conductor, whose players (those winds!) ate the "Scottish" up, as if they were going home.
composer Samuel Adams
What, when, where: Mobius Trio performs "Study for Mobius," part of the "Under 30 Project" presented by the Kronos Quartet at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco; 8 p.m. Feb. 7; $20; zpace.org
What/when/where: Diablo Ballet presents a world premiere by choreographer Robert Dekkers, to original recorded score by Samuel Adams; 6:30 p.m. March 6, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek; $26-$52; diabloballet.org/tickets