Symphonic evocations of ancient Rome and 1950s Los Angeles filled the Royal Albert Hall last night, with John Adams conducting a combined orchestra of students from London's Royal Academy of Music and New York's Juilliard School. Between these pieces, by Respighi and Adams himself, the players were joined by pianist Imogen Cooper for Ravel's G major concerto. This was a strong performance of some spectacular repertoire, given a distinctive stamp by Adams' interpretative vision.

Though Adams' own City Noir was probably meant to be the headline piece, for me the concert opener – Respighi's Feste Romane (1928) – was the real revelation, not just because of the quality of the work itself, but also because Adams treated it in such a fascinating fashion. I actually found myself wondering briefly whether I had misread the programme, or perhaps the whole history of classical music, and whether they had in fact started with Adams' composition rather than Respighi's. The performance was characterised by a sort of neat clippedness and scrupulous attention to details of articulation and dynamics, and with attention drawn towards the occasional repeating notes and chords, the mark of Adams was everywhere apparent in this reading. Not that there was anything wrong with this: it made for a fresh take on Respighi, and while the more conventionally Romantic moments in the work didn't fully soar (I wouldn't particularly like to hear John Adams conducting La Bohème), plenty of strikingly modernist moments more than compensated. Most thrilling was the whistle-stop Stravinskian tour around a town square in the finale, which crazily jumps around a range of styles, from waltzes to fanfares, and which the orchestra captured with a fantastical sense of adventure and drive.

The same sort of surprising precision was everywhere in the Ravel performance as well, and Imogen Cooper, a pianist better known for Classical repertoire (especially Schubert), gave a compact, slightly understated performance which complemented the orchestra's. But it's a peculiarity of Ravel that the Lisztian sheen of so much of his music for piano is not a superficiality – it's also an integral aspect to how the music works – and hence, to my ears at least, the fast outer movements lacked not just sparkle but also substance. That said, this concerto is all about the slow movement, among the most touching pieces in the literature, and Cooper handled the still, wistful solo which opens it with great grace. The orchestra joined her tenderly and the movement unfolded in a mesmerising soft haze, the lines of Prommers gently swaying in time.

While the performance of the conductor's composition City Noir (2009) was inevitably not as interesting interpretatively, it still made for a brilliant conclusion, and really allowed the large orchestra to shine – I'd never have guessed, here or in the earlier pieces, that the players lived on different continents most of the time. City Noir was more than a showpiece, though, and it was just the kind of intense exploration of Los Angeles mythology that you'd expect from John Adams, full of sultry saxophones, soft high chords on strings, and rich swells on brass. While the piece isn't a radical departure from Adams' home turf, the piece is still a thrilling cityscape, from the panoramic sweeps of the second movement to the intense, bright-lights climax of the third. And there was nothing to criticise in the orchestra's performance, which felt meticulously rehearsed and glowed with precisely the right amount of Hollywood polish.

The two 'city pieces' at each end of this concert made for a fascinating contrast, with Adams' the more emotional and abstract representation. But just as intriguing as the differences were the similarities between them which emerged in this performance: 81 years and 6,339 miles might separate them, but in Adams' hands they sounded rather closer.

Prom 4, at Royal Albert HallPaul Kilbey reviews Prom 4 2012, featuring John Adams and the Orchestra of the RAM and The Juilliard School.4