Posts Tagged “John Adams”


Out today on Nonesuch is John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, a concerto for violin and orchestra of symphonic proportions. Composed for soloist Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson, it also features Chester Englander as a “shadow soloist” playing cimbalom.


The program is, deliberately one suspects, somewhat veiled, but uncannily timed. It deals with the disempowered status of women, a given in the original Arabian Nights, and how they regain their voice and, ultimately, a sense of sanctuary from persecution. This is a theme that remains sadly relevant to current events, both abroad in far too many countries (and for far too many exiles and refugees) and in the United States’ disarrayed electoral politics.


Josefowicz plays marvelously, with a bravura demeanor that displays the courage of the title “character” and abundant virtuosity to boot. Robertson conducts St. Louis in a compelling and multifaceted performance, etching the details of the piece’s vivid orchestration and, while never overbalancing the soloists, bringing tremendous power to bear. When Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993) premiered, it was a watershed work for his compositional language, signaling a shift to a broader palette of harmonic and historic reference points. It appears quite possible that this is another pivotal piece in the composer’s catalogue.

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Since no one listens to contemporary classical music, and it doesn’t get put on concert programs, to have a new work not only recorded but recorded again, by different musicians, is an impossible dream. But that’s what happens when you’re John Adams, America’s leading composer. And deservedly so, because he’s a deeply skilled and intelligent composer with serious things to say and the aesthetic to say them clearly, expressively and winningly without pandering to or patronizing his audience.

But he is a busy man, and some of his recent work, like Absolute Jest and The Gospel According to the Other Mary seems more assembled from parts of pieces he (or, in the case of the former, Beethoven) has already made than thought through and composed. That’s been particulary frustrating, since his String Quartet, which I saw premiered in 2009, is not only a terrific piece but one that seemed to have opened the door to a new, late style.

The St. Lawrence Quartet was the original dedicatee, the ensemble that played it in public and recorded it first. Their intense, nervous energy was exactly right for the sinewy, restless music. Now they’ve been followed by the Attacca Quartet, with a Fellow Traveller, a new CD of Adam’s complete works for String Quartet. Their manner with the piece is very different, and that’s a strength of the recording that also serves the quality of the composition.

What is most interesting about the String Quartet is how Adams, who is fundamentally a Neo-Romantic composer with a great facility for tension, release and powerful expression, uses repetition to create a sensation of agitation, but this time without much resolution. At the Attacca’s enjoyable CD release performance at (le) poisson rouge, Adams spoke about harmony and how he believes that a facility for it is necessary for composers. But the Quartet is one of his least harmonically rich pieces, it subtly reaches back to Minimalist experiments like “Christian Zeal and Activity.” It’s also more closely related to Beethoven, who was of course a magnificent harmonist but whose secret power was always rhythm, especially building and releasing tension by moving the downbeat around to different parts of measures while maintaining the same meter.

That’s what Adams does in the Quartet, plays around with the rhythmic possibilities of short phrases, different lengths, different pulses. There’s a lot of chattering interplay that add to the overall dynamism and the whole builds to an evocative and enigmatic payoff. The Attacca plays this with less muscular vigor than the Borromeo but with more thoughtfulness, more introversion, and so bring out the internal mysteries of the music, and the swing a little bit more. They also are a more lyrical ensemble, and they pay more attention to phrasing than attack and articulation, and the results are not only expressive but place the music directly in the long history of Western classical music. I can hear the Haydn and Beethoven that is part of their memories.

That approach also pays off in John’s Book of Alleged Dances, which is both amusing in intent and seriously well-made. This is extroverted music, and the Attacca plays it that way, which adds to the impression that larger piece gives. Dances is not first-rate Adams, but especially in person, the Attacca give it a first-rate performance.

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Early reviews care of bloggers (one well-informed, one not so much)

Boosey and Hawkes has a perusal score available–through an inadequate interface methinks–here.

I was able to get some sense of the First Act by glancing at the score, and I wrote a preview for the LA Weekly here.

I’m attending the Sunday show and will report back here. Did anyone see the premiere last night? Your opinions are most welcome in the comments section!

Zachary Woolfe weighs in with the first professional review I’ve found online. His verdict? Moments of power and beauty, but Adams and Sellars were unable to sustain the intensity throughout the work.

Mark Swed calls it “a masterpiece” in his review here.

Joshua Kosman writes, “much of “The Gospel” finds Adams at his most evocative and inventive.” Read his complete review here.

Performing arts journalist Charlene Baldridge gives her impressions (highly favorable) on her blog.

Timothy Mangan finds The Gospel “a rather grueling evening of music,” but much of that music is “teeming and fascinating.” His review here.

Robert D. Thomas provides the most detailed reportage, although he appears to be withholding his judgement as to the work’s success or failure. His review here.

Pre-concert lecture from the world premiere, featuring John Adams here.

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Eclectic in their programming and superlatively talented, the Locrian Chamber Players have a unique mandate: they are the only new music ensemble which limits their repertoire to works composed in the last decade. This has led them to give countless American and World premieres of works. LCP are giving a concert this Thursday at Riverside Church, uptown in NYC. I caught up with the group’s director, David Macdonald, who whets my appetite for what looks to be an exciting concert.

CBC: How did you come to commission Malcolm Goldstein’s The Sky has Many Stories to Tell?

DM: A long time ago I heard Malcolm play a solo violin improvisation at Carnegie Hall.  I was floored by the sounds he got out of the instrument and the way he built a flowing piece on the spot out of all these extended techniques.  I later found a string quartet by him, which we performed in 2008, I think.  We loved the piece and, I’m happy to say, he was pleased with the performance.  We got to talking about having him write a piece for Locrian and “The Sky…” is the result of that.  The commission came through the Canada Council.  (Malcolm lives in Montreal.)  The piece, like most of his works, is a set of coordinated improvisations.

Who performs your Hornpipe? Is this a new piece?

It’s for string quartet, and it is a new piece.  Anyone who wants to hear it should not come late.  It lasts about 3 minutes and it’s first on the program.

Tell me about Evan Hause and his piece Halcyon Shores?

Evan is probably best known for a series of operas he’s written over the past decade based on 20th century historical subjects.  Like many of today’s youngish composers, his influences are very eclectic.  One of those operas has this aria where the vocal writing is kind of a hybrid of sprechtstimme and scat singing.  It’s really terrific.  Halcyon Shores is for violin, cello, flute and harp.  It’s never been performed in New York.

John Adams’ music is, of course, well known and often performed, but Fellow Traveler perhaps isn’t one of his ‘household name pieces.’ What’s Adams up to here?

It’s a crazy little piece he wrote for the Kronos Quartet a few years ago.  It’s almost entirely quarters and eighths at a very fast tempo (half-note-equals-138), with lots of nervous syncopation.

Which composers are going to be in attendance on Thursday?

Me and Evan Hause. Malcolm was supposed to be there and to play the violin part in his own piece.  But he became ill last week after a grueling European tour and thought it best not to push himself.  Our excellent violinist Cal Wiersma will take his place.

This has been a year of transition for Locrian Chamber Players? How have things changed in the way that you’re organizing the ensemble and programming concerts?

It’s been a tough year.  When (co-founder) John Kreckler died, I wasn’t sure if we could continue.  But the players have been absolutely lovely in helping me run things.  Locrian is a very important part of all of our musical lives, and we will go on.

What plans are in the offing for Locrian?

Next concert:  August 26.


The Locrian Chamber Players this Thursday, June 10 at 8PM in Riverside Church (10th floor performance space). Entrance at 91 Claremont Avenue (North of W. 120th Street: One block W. of Broadway) Free admission. A reception will follow the concert.

The Program: Malcolm Goldstein – The Sky Has Many Stories to Tell (World Premiere); John Adams – Fellow Traveler; Evan Hause – Halcyon Shores (New York Premiere); Joel Hoffman – Blue and Yellow; Chen Yi – Night Thoughts; David Macdonald – Hornpipe

The Players: Calvin Wiersma and Conrad Harris, violins; Daniel Panner, viola; Greg Hesselink, cello; Diva Goodfriend-Koven, flute; Jonathan Faiman, piano; Anna Reinersman, harp.

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Eric OwensBaritone Eric Owens is busy this fall – his Met debut as General Leslie Groves in John Adams’ Dr. Atomic is just a start to his performances this season in New York, Atlanta, London and Los Angeles.
Today is the release of A Flowering Tree on Nonesuch Records with Owens as the storyteller, another role he created. I spoke with Eric Owens about this new recording, his Met debut and about working with composers.
MP3 file

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