75 and still reaching out: the bedazzling art of John Adams

These days 75 is considered ‘no age’ so when the magnificent ‘Collected Works’ of the constantly evolving American composer John Adams, who celebrated his 75th birthday in February of this year, hits the shelves (it’s on Nonesuch 7559793229, 40 cds, c£149.00, and is released on July 1st) you find yourself hungry for what is yet to come, not least the two-act opera Antony and Cleopatra (based on Shakespeare, Plutarch and Virgil), a San Francisco Opera commission which is due to be premiered in September of this year. So how might it differ in style from his last opera Girls of the Golden West (premiered in 2017 and not included in the present collection)? Time, and happily not too much of it, will tell. 

While reluctant to nail Adams’s output to any particular genre, opera or opera-oratorio are undoubtedly near the top of his creative priorities. And there are further, shorter outgrowths from the stage works. Nixon in China, Adams’s first and longest opera, inspired by Richard Nixon‘s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, gave birth to a catchy foxtrot ‘The Chairman Dances’ while music from Adams’s most controversial work The Death of Klinghoffer, which prompted what in my view were unfair accusations of anti-Semitism and of romanticising terrorism, resurfaces in a series of choruses. Interestingly, the opening two choruses on the recording of the parent work – ‘The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ and ‘The Chorus of Exiled Jews’ – clock up an identical 8:33. Now you can’t be more even-handed than that.

Then there’s the widely lauded Dr.Atomic, about the Atomic Bomb’s first test and later adapted into an extraordinarily powerful Symphony. This latter work is, for me, at the very crux of Adams’s transformation from a heel-kicking, ‘abacus’ Minimalist (ie Shaker LoopsGrand Pianola Music and Harmonium) to a symphonist who incorporates repetition into his style much as Beethoven did in the first movement of his Pastoral Symphony. Like the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ Penderecki, here we have a composer who, to reflect a Nietzsche aphorism, has the courage to oppose his convictions, rather than slavishly follow them. Other stage works include the Pullitzer Prize-winning The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which focuses on the final few weeks of the life of Jesus, including his Passion, from the point of view of  “the other Mary”, Mary of Bethany her sister Martha, and her brother, Lazarus. Among the most mysterious episodes is from Scene 3, ‘Golgotha’, ‘And they were come to a place called Golgotha’, and the percussive, decidedly Middle Eastern sounding final Earthquake. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, is cast in the style of a tuneful musical, and recounts how a very different earthquake prompted much soul-searching. The opera-oratorio El niño retells the Christmas story while A Flowering Tree is a two-act opera based on an ancient Indian folk tale, which opens as if it’s escaped from the pages of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (Sibelius being a frequent presence in Adams’s work). So you see, Adams’s operas transcend the genre, often painting in tones that are far from operatic, and no composer could have been less operatic than Sibelius.

Opera is fundamentally narrative but for Adams narrative doesn’t start, and certainly doesn’t end, there. Everything he’s written tells some sort of story. The Wound Dresser sets excerpts from Walt Whitman’s emotive and touching recollections of his days as a hospital volunteer during the American Civil War. It’s a wonderful piece. So is Harmonielehre, “ … a statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future” according to Adams himself, and cast on a symphonic scale. Two versions are included in the set, one with the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart, the other, more recent, and richer in texture, granted, but marginally less delicate in detail, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic under Adams himself. 

Century Rolls, a sort of piano concerto, has Emanuel Ax collaborate with the Cleveland Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnányi on the rostrum for music that either bops or beguiles, echoes of Stravinsky sometimes sounding from the wings. The amazing Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony will keep your feet tapping and your mind spinning more or less in counterpoint while the Violin Concerto (Gidon Kremer or Leila Josefowicz) swirls (first movement) or sings (central ‘Chaconne’), invariably with a purpose. The mysterious, almost tactile expanses of Eldorado again play the narrative card, where two contrasting universes run up against each other. And the rest? So much it would take aeons to discuss it all, the Indian asides in The Dharma at Big Sur (Tracy Silverman, electric violin), the combination of dance and danger in the synth extravaganza Hoodoo Zephyr, late Beethoven as revisited in the pages of Roll Over Beethoven, not to mention arrangements of Busoni, Liszt and Ives, and much, much more. Always something new or unexpected, but never obscure or unlistenable. Adams is the perennial child who brings out the children in us, inviting us to play or share but with a difference – we can keep the toys, every one of them. ‘The Complete Works’, all of which is superbly recorded, comes packaged in a sturdy box with a contents book and a book of essays. Of its kind, it’s a classic, to be enjoyed and savoured at various levels. I feel as if I’ve owned and listened to its contents for years and yet, to be truthful, a good deal of the music was new to me. Adams doesn’t so much introduce us to new things as rummage below our consciousness in search of ideas that he can recall on our behalf, dust them off and make them new. But they were always there, hidden. That’s what I call a communicator.

5 thoughts on “75 and still reaching out: the bedazzling art of John Adams

  1. Brian Gardner

    Your first post for a while Rob? And very welcome. J. A. is very definitely ‘no age’, being 3 months younger than me!
    Best Wishes,


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