Composer, conductor, and creative thinker John Adams (born February 15, 1947) occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes.
Works spanning more than three decades have entered the repertoire and are among the most performed of all contemporary classical music, among them Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, Chamber Symphony, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto. His stage works, all in collaboration with director Peter Sellars, include Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), El Niño (2000), Doctor Atomic (2005), A Flowering Tree (2006), and the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012). Adams’s latest opera Girls of the Golden West, set during the 1850s California Gold Rush, premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2017 before traveling to the Dutch National Opera in February 2019 for its European premiere.
Other recent works include Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, written for piano soloist Yuja Wang, the LA Phil, and Gustavo Dudamel, as well as the orchestral work -I Still Dance, written for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and premiered in September 2019 in San Francisco.
In 2019, Adams received Holland's prestigious Erasmus Prize, “for contributions to European culture,” the only American composer ever chosen for this award. That same year, he received the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Music and Opera in recognition of the communicative power of his works, especially through their treatment of current events. Other awards include the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, and the 1993 Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto. Adams has additionally received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Northwestern University, Cambridge University, the Juilliard School, and the Royal Academy of Music. A provocative writer, he is author of the highly acclaimed autobiography Hallelujah Junction, and is a contributor to the New York Times Book Review.
As a conductor, Adams appears with the world’s major orchestras in programs combining his own works with a wide variety of repertoire ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to Ives, Carter, Zappa, Glass, and Ellington. In recent seasons, he has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Symphoniker, the orchestras of Seattle, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Toronto, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he has held the position of Creative Chair since 2008.
In 2020, the world premiere recording of Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was released on Deutsche Grammophon, featuring Yuja Wang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Other recent releases include the world premiere recording of Doctor Atomic (Nonesuch 2018), with Adams conducting the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra; and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s “John Adams Edition,” a 2017 box set of live performances conducted by Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, Kirill Petrenko, and Sir Simon Rattle.
Together with his wife, the photographer Deborah O’Grady, Adams
has created the Pacific Harmony Foundation, which funds young composers,
ensembles and music education outreach.
== Biography from the Boosey & Hawkes website
|[Parts of a review by Dennis Polkow in
the Chicago Reader, published July 20, 1989.] [Adams
led the single performance on July 7, 1989]
Grant Park programs are often full of imagination, but Grant Park conductors usually are not. I find that the latter generally nullify the virtues of the former. While a first-rate orchestra can sound decent even with a second-rate conductor–as the Chicago Symphony proves with great regularity–a second-rank orchestra led by a second-rate conductor usually sounds unfocused and scrappy.
But match a second-class orchestra with a first-class conductor, and something very special begins to happen; do it often enough, and it is the orchestra’s standards–not the conductor’s–that will change. Early this month (fortunately just after Taste of Chicago), the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra proved this with its most adventurous weekend of the season, a Friday night concert under the direction of John Adams and a Saturday night program (repeated on Sunday) led by Andrew Parrott. This was a Chicago debut for Adams, a minimalist composer who has lately been garnering a reputation as a conductor; he is one of three conductors (along with Christopher Hogwood and Hugh Wolff) overseeing the activities of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. For Parrott the weekend was a triumphant return to the site of his American debut, a thoroughly magical concert given here in 1987; the founder of Britain’s first period-instrument orchestra (yes, pre-Hogwood and Pinnock) and one of its most prestigious choral ensembles (the Taverner Choir), Parrott is just starting to achieve the recognition that many of his less-deserving colleagues have long enjoyed.Adams’s program consisted of Gershwin’s An American in Paris; a new piano concerto, Glosas, by the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra; Adams’s own The Chairman Dances; and Ravel’s Bolero. ( . . . )
What I particularly admired in Adams’s reading of the [Gershwin] was his light, bouncy approach, emphasizing its jazz and blues roots. The problem with most performances of American is that they are given by conductors who are steeped in Brahms and apt to be heavy-handed and overly Germanic in their interpretations. The work calls for a French approach in many respects, an ability to project sonority above all. At the same time it needs a jazz-blues sense of rhythm and syncopation. Adams, it turns out, understands all this, and his performance was a real pleasure. His tempi seemed slower than his light approach warranted (presumably he chose to favor accuracy over speed), but the strings were getting a much purer, straighter tone than usual, and the winds had a delightful cabaret quality to them. There were some predictable brass blurbs, but the violin lead lines were very well rendered. Adams’s sense of form and tension and buildup were quite convincing, and I have never heard anyone approach the meter of the piece with greater playfulness and flexibility.
Roberto Sierra’s Glosas (“glosses,” as in textual expansions or commentaries) is in effect a piano concerto, based on elements, we are told, from Caribbean popular music. Its motivic material is very chromatic and makes great use of the tritone, a dissonant interval that creates a sense of tension which in this piece is never resolved. Not that that has to be a problem; Sierra is extraordinarily clever in the way he uses and transforms these materials, all the while mixing them with Latin rhythms to heighten the tension. The piece owes as much to Bartók, Prokofiev, Ginastera, and British horror films as it does to anything Caribbean, but it is a lot of fun and has a wonderful sense of color and style. Pianist Jose Ramos-Santana, for whom the difficult work was written, performed it with ease, and the Grant Park Symphony, thanks to Adams’s careful direction, didn’t miss a beat. Frankly I was surprised. I have often been critical of Grant Park’s tackling new works that it is unable to bring off effectively, but obviously with the right piece, soloist, conductor, and context, it can work very well.
I was also skeptical about how well Adams’s own work, The Chairman Dances, would go; Grant Park’s forays into minimalism have generally been quite scrappy. Minimalism often sounds simple, but repetitious phrases played tightly together across a large orchestra, varying slightly, are nightmares of counting and concentration for even the most accomplished players. Further I was aware that the work was an offshoot of Adams’s controversial 1987 opera, Nixon in China, which I found an insufferable bore. If Adams has a sense of how to write for the human voice, he did not display much of it in Nixon. Moreover I was put off by the opera’s unlikely combination of a minimalist score with a conventional linear libretto. Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, a minimalist opera that I found rewarding and memorable, does not attempt to tell the Gandhi story in a traditional Western sequence of events; rather it is a series of tableaux or meditations, in which the underlying musical repetition becomes a sort of public mantra, fitting the cyclical Eastern ethos and the mystical and sacred character of the Sanskrit verses that serve as the libretto. As for Nixon, there appears to be no particular reason why a minimalist style, versus, say, a serial style, was used for this opera’s subject matter.
The Chairman Dances is, according to Adams, who offered a chatty introduction to the piece, “an outtake from Nixon in China.” It seems that Madame Mao gate-crashes the final presidential banquet and suddenly disrobes before the guests (she was a film actress in the 30s). She beckons to her husband’s huge image on the wall, and the old man comes down from his poster and they fox-trot, “fantasizing all the while,” said Adams, “that they are Ginger and Fred.” The scene remained in the opera, but the full music was not used.
As a separate piece of music, The Chairman Dances is a fun-spirited and energetic piece–a hilarious spoof of 30s dance music as the Chinese might have imagined it, with wood blocks beating the time against piano and harp and a gushy, string-laden big-band accompaniment. The piece builds in momentum across a classic arc. The subtlety, accuracy, and good humor with which the Grant Park players approached it made the total effect all the more entertaining. Adams may have trouble writing for voice, but he is a master orchestrator and a superb musical craftsman.
What better to crown this concert than Ravel’s Bolero? Not only does it fit with the general theme of dance and meter that this program emphasized, but it too, it could be argued, is a minimalist piece, with constant repetition through shifting sonorities and dynamics. Also, because the two newer works were cleverly sandwiched between such “hits” as An American in Paris and Bolero, everyone in the audience stayed right through to the end. Adams brought out the work’s overtones in a nice, tangy way, and his sense of buildup was remarkably clear.
Robert Kajanus (Helsinki, 2 December 1856 – Helsinki, 6 July
1933) was a Finnish conductor, composer, and teacher. In 1882, he founded
the Helsinki Orchestral Society, Finland's first professional orchestra.
As a conductor, he was also a notable champion and interpreter of the
music of Jean Sibelius
He founded the first permanent orchestra in Finland, the Helsinki Orchestral Society (later to become the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Finland's national orchestra). He brought the orchestra to a very high performance standard very quickly, so that they were able to give quite credible performances of the standard late classical/mid-romantic repertory. Kajanus led the Helsinki Philharmonic for 50 years, and among the milestones of that history was the first performance in Finland of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in 1888. His early-electric 78-rpm atmospheric, authoritative recordings of Sibelius symphonies are still interpretive milestones.
Kajanus composed over 200 works, of which Aino and the Finnish Rhapsodies are enduringly popular. He also orchestrated the Finnish national anthem, Maamme (Our Country) and Christian Fredric Kress's Porilaisten marssi (March of the People of Pori), the honor march of the Suomen puolustusvoimat (Finnish Defense Forces) and thus, effectively, the Finnish presidential march.
Kajanus had a decisive impact upon the development of the career of Jean Sibelius. He was considered an authority on the interpretation of Sibelius's music. He and Sibelius were close friends, but this was compromised in 1898 when Sibelius was appointed to a university post for which Kajanus was himself a candidate. Kajanus appealed, and the decision was overturned. But they reconciled for the orchestra's tour of Europe in 1900, where they appeared at the Exposition Universelle at the invitation of the French government. Kullervo, Sibelius's epic masterpiece, was written in the wake of Kajanus' symphonic poem Aino, although Sibelius denied any exertion of influence of this piece over his own work. Additionally, as a conductor, Kajanus was responsible for commissioning one of Sibelius' most popular and enduring works, En Saga, following the success of Kullervo. Pohjola's Daughter was dedicated to Kajanus. When Kajanus took the Helsinki Orchestra on a tour of Europe in 1900 both he and Sibelius conducted, including what proved to be the first performances of Sibelius's music outside of Finland. This ensured the spread of the young composer's reputation far beyond the borders of his homeland, the first Finnish composer to receive such attention.
Kajanus was the first to make recordings of Sibelius's First, Second, Third and Fifth symphonies and Tapiola. They were recorded in the early 1930s, with the London Symphony Orchestra. The relationship between Kajanus and Sibelius was such that his interpretations of the composer's music are usually regarded as authentic.
In 1930, the Finnish government and Britain's EMI-Columbia label, perceiving a potentially wide audience for the composer's work, jointly arranged to record Sibelius's first two symphonies, and Kajanus was selected to record both at the insistence of the composer. In 1932 Kajanus recorded Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5, along with orchestral suites and tone poems. This was a massive recording project for the work of a living composer, and the recordings have been considered definitive for many years, and are regarded as necessary listening in the study of Sibelius. Only his death in July 1933, at the age of 76, prevented Kajanus from recording all of Sibelius' Symphonies.
© 1989 & 1999 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in Chicago on July 6, 1989, and May 3, 1999. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992, 1997, and 1999. This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.