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Bringing It All Back Home: John Adams at 70

February 3, 2017

The San Francisco Symphony is justly proud of its long-term relationship with the eminent composer and Bay Area resident John Adams, which dates back nearly forty years: It began in 1978 with Adams’s appointment as an SFS new music adviser, and soon blossomed into his first major opportunities to write for orchestra and chorus and an ongoing series of innovative commissions. Adams has since been a significant international presence, and his music is being celebrated around the world with special fervor this season in honor of his 70th birthday. For the big occasion itself, Adams returns home and fills the SFS bill with three separate programs this month. Contributing Writer Thomas May looks back at the composer’s rich history with the SFS.

You would be forgiven for imagining a clever director had coached a miniature army of body doubles, or that a music-mad bioengineer had disseminated a few clones: John Adams seems to be intercontinentally omnipresent this season—in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles. This month, when he actually reaches the biblical milestone of 70 (February 15), he is right back home, with his music as the centerpiece of a three-weekend celebration by the San Francisco Symphony.

John Adams hardly requires the special pleading of an anniversary year. His orchestral works have won a coveted place in the contemporary repertory and are especially prized by the SFS, the first orchestra to commission and record them. SFS Media, the orchestra’s in-house label, has released two John Adams recordings under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, winning the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance for their accounts of Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Over the past decade, no fewer than three of the composer’s operas have attained the Holy Grail of being staged at the Metropolitan Opera. And his music has profoundly influenced a new generation of composers. That’s not to say that they sound “like” Adams—though Adamsian traits frequently do leave their mark—so much as that he furnishes a model for sustaining a potent individual voice while casting a wide net of stylistic allusion. This month’s SFS Adams celebration commences, appropriately enough, with SoundBox performances curated by Adams himself (February 10 and 11) that feature some of the most compelling voices among today’s emerging composers.

The SFS boasts the longest-standing partnership among Adams’s relationships with leading international orchestras, which by now number too many to cover exhaustively. Other significant collaborations include those with the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 9/11 piece On the Transmigration of Souls, as well as the work MTT will introduce to SFS audiences on February 22-25 (the “dramatic symphony” Scheherazade.2, with Leila Josefowicz as the soloist); the Los Angeles Philharmonic, commissioner of the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, also being presented here for the first time (on February 16-18, with Grant Gershon conducting); and, most recently, the Berlin Philharmonic, where Adams is serving a residency and expanding his credentials as a conductor.

Time Warp Back to the 1970s
Such enduring success makes it difficult to recall just how dismal a scene a young composer faced in the classical music world when Adams arrived in the Bay Area in the early 1970s. Having traveled from his native New England in a rusting Volkswagen Beetle (its floor collapsed as he was driving on a freeway ramp into downtown Oakland), the young transplant for a time found his place amid a flourishing avant-garde culture of electro-acoustic process experiments and art happenings.

Adams unexpectedly landed a job teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the Sunset District—the prelude to his first connections with SFS. For a full decade, from 1972 to 1982, Adams taught at the Conservatory. He also took on leadership of its New Music Ensemble, which presented events at the de Young Museum, SFMOMA rotunda, and other gallery spaces and parks around the city. The SF Conservatory position afforded Adams the time and space he needed to begin to find his distinctive voice as a composer, amid much restless experimentation.

Yet for all the enthusiasm of new music devotees, the establishment at that time regarded their work at best with bemusement. In his memoir, Hallelujah Junction—a must-read for anyone interested in Bay Area culture of the era, Adams ruefully notes that his “years of alternative programming” would provide ample opportunity for “bon mots … [by] local music critics grateful for an easy target.” Adams, in turn, recalls the San Francisco Symphony’s concerts being hampered by the somewhat “dry and thankless” acoustics of their home at the time (the stage of the War Memorial Opera House).

That situation changed dramatically when the Dutchman Edo de Waart  came on board as SFS music director in 1977. Adams felt encouraged to start attending orchestra concerts again. “[Edo] got to the emotional core of the music not through intellectual design but through pure intuition,” observes Adams—a process that paralleled what the young composer was seeking in his own music. The gulf between contemporary composers and audiences had become a widespread barrier. Yet it had become further complicated for composers like Adams, who felt simultaneously alienated from the elaborate cerebral constructions favored by the most powerful of the postwar avant-garde—constructions he calls “mannerist” in their overwrought complexity. An accompanying attitude of “dispassionate scientific investigation” privileged concept and design over how their music actually sounded.

The essence of musical expression and communication, for Adams, had always been emotional. But when he came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, an aspiring composer who espoused this belief invited suspicious scrutiny from the academy. (Literature students would encounter a similar phenomenon in the heyday of deconstruction in the 1980s.)  The contemporary composers who were highly regarded in the field at the time seemed to have little in common with the models, both classical and vernacular—from Mozart to Copland and Duke Ellington—that had inspired Adams to seek out a life in music in the first place. Meanwhile, for mainstream music lovers attending the SFS and their counterparts in countless other cities, “contemporary music” had increasingly morphed into a label implying something outright undesirable rather than a neutral term for music—good or bad—created by living people, just as contemporary painters, playwrights, filmmakers, and novelists continue to create art in their media on a regular basis.

This was the context in which de Waart befriended Adams and hired him to help as his adviser on contemporary music. Adams consequently began curating a series dubbed New and Unusual Music. The composer fondly recalls this era, when he would drive up in his Karmann Ghia convertible to meet with de Waart (the Beetle, having been replaced, though with another beat-up vehicle). “There was no back seat, of course, but just a well, filled with scores that were of outsize dimensions, as they tended to be for music of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Maderna.”

At the SFS, Adams was given the opportunity to match the new voice he was discovering to the full power of the orchestra and chorus, gaining his first platform for a wider audience. On April 15, 1981, the SFS gave the world premiere of Harmonium, Adams’s three-part setting of poetry by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. The late Michael Steinberg, former SFS artistic adviser (and whom Adams much admired for his eloquent and perceptive program notes), noted the unusual level of excited attention as the audience listened to Harmonium, with its sensitive orchestration and demanding but pivotal choral writing. Afterward, Steinberg wrote, “enormous applause erupted” and “John Adams became, unmistakably, a major figure on our musical landscape.”

Family Ties
Deborah O’Grady, a photographer, video artist, and Adams's wife, recalls what it was like to see people taking in his music. “I enjoyed the anonymity (when I had it) of wandering through the audience after a performance of John’s work, eavesdropping for comments,” she recalls. “Those early pieces were at a time when ‘new music’ was so very frightening to audiences. I’m not saying it isn’t anymore, but back then I think John’s work came as a huge surprise, largely (my opinion) because it combines a mastery of orchestration, tonal harmony that is unpredictable and surprising, and deep emotional impact.”

The inaugural season of Davies Symphony Hall was also the inaugural year of O’Grady’s personal relationship with Adams. They met in the Green Room during the press conference for the 1981 edition of New Music America (a nomadic festival held across North America from 1979 to 1990). The late music artist Pauline Oliveros was on the organizing committee for New Music America and recommended O’Grady to colleagues, so she was given responsibility for publicizing the festival. The SFS, O’Grady says, “kindly offered the Green Room in the new Davies Symphony Hall and offered John as a spokesperson for the Symphony.”

Like Adams, O’Grady was a transplant to California (in her case, from the Midwest) and had been attracted to the creative environment in the Bay Area after becoming disillusioned with approach to new music in the academy. She left her graduate studies in music composition and theory at UCSD to settle in San Francisco. O’Grady first heard of Adams when she encountered his breakthrough piece for strings, Shaker Loops, in December 1978, in which he infused the Minimalist style with a signature frenetic energy that is pure Adams. “I didn’t know John at the time,” O’Grady says. “Our graduate courses at UCSD were very Viennese school/twelve-tone focused, so his music was a complete revelation to me”—especially since she hadn’t yet encountered the work of the other Minimalists who were a direct influence on the young Adams (Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass).

After the 1981 New Music America festival, the SFS asked O’Grady to help with some special projects. “I eventually joined the staff,” she says, “first as Assistant Operations Director and then Operations Director,” which included working on Adams’s New and Unusual Music initiative. “That’s where I got to know John better, organizing the concerts at the Design Center and later the Japan Center.” O’Grady and Adams got married and had two children, who themselves have gone on to become artists: Emily, a painter now based in Brooklyn whose latest work was recently in a show at CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles; and Sam, a composer now living in Chicago who himself has been commissioned by the SFS (Drift and Providence) and who is married to SFS Associate Principal Second Violin Helen Kim.

“Our son, Sam, once said to someone backstage something like ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the SFS.’ Meaning literally,” O’Grady remarks. “The Symphony brought us together and here we still are. The SFS has always felt like family to us. We still have many close friendships from people we knew and worked with there over the years.”

A New and Unusual Voice
The positive reception of Harmonium—which was married to a series of projected outdoor animations to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 2015—led to Adams’s appointment as composer-in-residence with the Symphony from 1982 to 1985. This residency, which served as the early model for what has since become a regular institution at orchestras around the United States, culminated in Adams’s largest-scale orchestral composition to date, Harmonielehre. Its premiere in 1985 marked another hugely significant breakthrough. But in writing the piece, Adams faced another spell of bleak doubts. Its ecstatic peroration sounds like a cry of blissful joy after a dark period of feeling creatively stifled. Adams had been unable to write for months, as the pressure of a major commission built. “I was still a young composer,” he writes, “and not secure enough to know that a bad spell was just that—a bad spell—and that it would eventually pass.”

The forty-minute work, which has become established as a contemporary classic, on one level worked through Adams’s lingering ambivalence about the validity of tonality. The title (“Theory of Harmony”) is a double entendre that alludes to Schoenberg’s famous treatise explaining how historical tonality operates, but it also hints at “a psychic quest for harmony.” Adams recalls that the score’s peculiar fusion of his errant Minimalism with references to late German Romanticism evolved in part from hearing de Waart and the Orchestra perform Mahler, R. Strauss, and Bruckner during that period. Deborah O’Grady recalls that Harmonielehre “was a tough piece in the sense that John was really shifting gears. We were fairly newly married, with an infant daughter (Emily—“Quackie" in the piece), and I remember John throwing away as many sketches as he kept while composing.”

Yet within a few years, Adams was propelled from an avant-garde niche, where he was known to a small local following, to a prominent figure in the American musical scene. The platform provided by the SFS was obviously pivotal, but how did Adams succeed in striking such a responsive chord in audiences? Commentators have attempted to explain this through such formulations as “the return to tonality” or the “expressive” appeal of “neo-Romanticism”—as if simply deciding to use a clearly defined home key and desiring to communicate are all that is required to win the ears of a sophisticated, music-loving public.

Tonality is in fact only one among many elements in the equation. It also includes the driving rhythmic energy, pulsation, and dazzling ear for orchestral color that belong to Adams’s unique style. But these would be little more than surface details without the master builder genius that allows Adams to integrate all of his elements into articulate yet unconventional formal structures. This month offers two especially compelling examples. The Gospel According to the Other Mary (which can be staged or presented “straight”) reimagines the massive choral pillars of the Bach Passions in a time-transcending account of the Passion story from the perspective of the women central to Christ’s mission. And in Scheherazade.2, Adams fuses the violin concerto with the thrilling narrative model of Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony” to depict the predicament of women in a misogynistic culture. In the process, he expands the expectations of the soloist—the piece was written specifically for Leila Josefowicz, its ardent champion—to include not only musical virtuosity but the emotional acumen of a Meryl Streep.

“The route I took was not to become more ‘audience friendly’ but simply to find my own voice,” Adams says. “Ultimately, it’s impossible to separate form and content. What you do formally is the content. In that sense, my maturing as a composer had to do with the kind of musical forms that I finally adopted.”

Reconnecting with the Audience
In other words, Adams’s ability to appeal to audiences over time through repeat performances of his works has to be related to the specific character of each composition and not to the use of a musical language that is somehow more accessible. What Adams has managed to achieve is to restore what he calls “the pleasure principle” in listening to music—and toward this Minimalism helped point the way—but at the same time to embed this within compositions that convey the sense of substance and depth we get from meaningful narratives.

An abiding and persuasive connection to the American vernacular in all its forms further accounts for Adams’s ability to attract audiences. For example, his New England roots nurtured the above-mentioned Shaker Loops (1977), a sextet later arranged for string orchestra that was inspired by his childhood memories of an abandoned Shaker colony in small-town New Hampshire. (The piece also demonstrates Adams’s fondness for punning and allusive titles, with its repetitions and prominent use of “shakes,” another term for musical trills.)

Listeners are additionally drawn to Adams’s dramatic sensibility. Such sprawling orchestral canvases as Harmonielehre or Na├»ve and Sentimental Music inherently convey their inner sense of event. It was inevitable that Adams would emerge as one of our most compelling opera composers. Director Peter Sellars, his longtime artistic collaborator and friend, overrode Adams’s initial resistance to the genre and launched this significant part of his career on the strength of a hunch. Since then Sellars has partnered with Adams on all of his stage works—including the latest opera-in-progress, The Girls of the Golden West, which San Francisco Opera will premiere in November

Listening to Shaker Loops had convinced Sellars that Adams possessed a natural operatic touch. “It was thrilling,” remarks Sellars, “because here was music that was genuinely dramatic. Shaker Loops builds up these incredible sweeps of tension and then goes into astonishing release and then adrenalin-inspired visionary states: That is absolutely what you hope for in theater. I realized that this is theater music, which has the ability to build and sustain tension.”

Adams’s work for the musical stage has enriched his language as a symphonic composer and cross-fertilized with his orchestral compositions: both his First Violin Concerto and Doctor Atomic Symphony grew out of the language he evolved for his operas The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005), respectively. It will be fascinating to see where the composer’s newest major project takes him: The Girls of the Golden West is set during the Gold Rush in 1851 and draws on primary source material—letters, trial documents, even the lyrics of historic Gold Rush songs—to tell the story of a group of characters who headed out to the frontier in quest of fortune and a new life (“California’s first ‘bubble,’” Adams wryly notes).  Adams says he’s especially inspired by the material, which allows him to tell these stories in the words of the people who experienced them—with a focus on the points of view of the women and outcasts who are have been ignored in standard historical accounts. 

It does seem that 70 is the new 30—at least for an artist with the temperament of John Adams. For all his successes, Adams remains unpredictable, an artist for whom each new composition represents an (initially terrifying) blank canvas. It’s this persistent drive to explore new territory and to expand his language that has given his career its momentum—and that continues to propel it into the future.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater, and is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs at memeteria.com.