by Elena Park
ACO caps-off its season April 27 at Carnegie Hall with an all-John Adams concert, conducted by the composer. Adams will receive ACO's Distinguished Composer Award. A benefit after-party follows the concert.
"The model of the composer as lonely outsider, the Schoenberg or the Adrian Leverkühn that Thomas Mann so vividly sketched, is not the ideal for me," says John Adams, whose remarkable career has defied that notion. Adams is a composer who is in active conversation with the world around him. This engagement is reflected in his operas, which have addressed pivotal moments in the lives of contemporary figures like Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon; in his festivals, which showcase young mavericks whose music resists categorization; and in his performances, when he conducts his own works in the world's great concert halls.
So it's fitting that an ACO season devoted to composer-performers should end with an all-Adams program led by the composer himself. On Friday, April 27 at 8pm, the ACO will close its 30th season with "An Adams Apple: John Adams at 60" at Carnegie Hall. The program includes his Violin Concerto (1993) featuring Leila Josefowicz, The Wound-Dresser (1989) with baritone Eric Owens, and My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003).
In its second movement, My Father Knew Charles Ives evokes a New England dance hall of Adams' childhood. Concerts in that hall, owned by his grandfather, had a formative effect on his life as an artist. "When I was at a very impressionable age I twice saw Duke Ellington on tour with his band," says Adams. "I was struck not only by Ellington's close relationship with his band but also by his easy relationship with his audience. Everything was integral to his creative work. His was an image of wholeness for me, and I have never forgotten it."
Benny Goodman was another role model for the young Adams, who played jazz and classical clarinet under the tutelage of his father, who used to patiently count out rhythms for his son. "I am certain that mastering an instrument at an early age had a huge effect on my future," he says, looking back. "I gained enormous intuitive ability and considerable self-confidence as a teenager by going around New England playing all the clarinet literature."
After performing well-known concertos from memory with community orchestras, Adams began conducting while still in high school. Although he retired his clarinet when he was 23 (his last professional gig was playing Copland's Sextet at a seventieth birthday concert for the composer), he still benefits from that experience. "I know that when I step out onto the stage to conduct these days, the confidence I feel comes from that early training."
Today Adams conducts a range of his works dating back to the late Seventies (Shaker Loops), the Eighties (Harmonium, Harmonielehre, The Chairman Dances), the Nineties (Violin Concerto, Gnarly Buttons, Chamber Symphony, Naive and Sentimental Music) and the more recent past (On the Transmigration of Souls). "This keeps me in touch with these pieces, allows me to rethink some details, but also reminds me of the intensity I felt back when I was composing them."
The composer relishes the opportunity to interpret his own works. "In the pre-modern era, printed music was the only way for a composer to convey his intentions. But today we can utilize other means. I've had the great fortune to have had virtually all my pieces released in composer-supervised recordings. In many cases, I've conducted the music myself, or if not, I've been intimately involved in the performance. So these recordings - they are almost all on the Nonesuch label - should be seen as complementary to the printed music."
Still, Adams that he sometimes finds himself sitting through "a clueless or stubbornly wrong-headed performance." The problem, he says, is usually the tempi, despite the fact though precise metronome markings are indicated in the score. "This ought to be pretty much fool-proof, right? Most people don't have perfect pitch, so knowing the difference between B and Bb is understandable. But any conductor ought to know the difference between MM=100 and MM=120. There is a world of difference. Yet I've had situations in which even some of the world's most esteemed conductors have done the most excruciating things with my tempi. Sometimes it's an 'interpretive' decision, but most often it's just plain carelessness or indifference."
Adams admits that it's a challenge to balance the externally focused life of conductor with the more internal, solitary life of composer. "I often feel really considerable internal dissonance when I have to stop being a composer and jump on a plane and transform myself into a public person, a conductor who can relate comfortably to a stage full of 100 musicians and a hall full of several thousand people. But in the end it's a good experience."
He dismisses talk of the so-called "death of classical music" as pretty meaningless. "The world is full of people with creative ideas," says Adams. "We could, to make things simpler, just forget about the term 'classical.' That might make things easier. But I still like to use it, because it reminds me that what I do aims at having a very long shelf-life."
The composer finds it impossible to generalize about contemporary music right now. "There are composers, very young indeed, who absolutely love atonality and hard-edged "industrial"-strength dissonance, and they have found a significant following," he observes. "And there are others who are making headlines writing the blandest, most carefully composed 'audience-friendly' orchestra pieces. They too have found a serious and grateful following. Some young composers are deeply influenced by rock and indie music, while others are combing the past to find what they construe to be the key to winning back the confidence of a lost public."
Like the ACO this season, Adams has thrown the spotlight on fellow composer-performers who, in performance practice, are more in the mold of Adams (or Mozart or Mahler or Reich) than of Schoenberg. In the program notes for his recent "In Your Ear" festival at Carnegie Hall, Adams wrote that during much of the 20th century, "composers, perhaps following the model of Schoenberg and his school, stood apart from the actual act of performing, passing their creations over to others, thereby maintaining a strange gulf of isolation between the 'writing' of music and the 'playing' of it." He then happily observed that that the newer generation of composers doesn't draw a line between composing and performing music, which results in music by composer-performers such as Nico Muhly and Alarm Will Sound that "seems to convey a fresh energy, a spontaneity that could never come from merely sitting at a table with a pen and sheet of manuscript paper."
Of course, the same could be said of the imaginative and dynamic music of John Adams, who has not gone against Thomas Mann's idea of the artist as loner as much as completely disregard it. "It's a psychologically healthy thing to do," he says, "moving back and forth from creative work to performing. I think each activity nourishes the other."
Elena Park is