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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Feb 8, 2017

A note from John Adams on his history with the SFS, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Scheherazade.2

I began my life as a serious composer in San Francisco. “Nixon in China” was given its first try-out (accompanied by two electric pianos) at Herbst Theater in the spring of 1987. To me it was just a workshop opportunity to hear what I’d written, but to my alarm critics from as far away as New York arrived to review it, even though I’d not even finished the orchestration. The next night Tom Brokaw commented wryly on NBC Nightly News that some in the audience had “voted with their feet.”  The San Francisco Opera, undaunted, went on to present “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic” and “Nixon in China.”

My history with the San Francisco Symphony goes back even further, with Edo de Waart’s premiere of “Harmonium” in 1982, shortly after Davies Hall opened. Several years later, Edo premiered “Harmonielehre,” the recording of which still astonishes me for its intensity and depth—even though the orchestra had only seen the piece for less than a week.

I have a long mental list of “peak moments” with the Symphony, some of them involving the jittery angst of recording sessions; or of the chaotic hilarity of conducting a John Cage evening; or the immense satisfaction of hearing MTT’s brilliant performances of “Absolute Jest.” I recall conducting the first performance of “Grand Pianola Music” in a grubby cabaret space in the Japan Center, where the detritus of the previous night’s rock concert (empty fast food cartons, open bottles of stale beer, cigarette butts,) still littered the stage. Most of all I remember the enthusiasm of the players, their warm friendship and willingness to try to make sense of every note I’d written.

For the two weeks of my 70th birthday celebration I’ve chosen not to bring back my “golden oldies,” but rather to present two recent large-scale works that are new to San Francisco: “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” and “Scheherazade.2”. Both of these works are about women fighting for self-realization.

The “Other Mary” is of course, Mary Magdalene. To me she is an archetypal figure, a woman damaged in life, perhaps one sexually abused, tormented by self-loathing yet fanatically intent upon finding enlightenment. In my oratorio she witnesses two deaths and resurrections—the first of her brother Lazarus, and the second of the man she loves both in the flesh and the spirit, Jesus. This “big canvas” oratorio, which I conceived of as a sequel to my Nativity oratorio, “El Niño,” time-travels between the Biblical past and the socially and politically violent present. I’m delighted to have written the only sacred oratorio that references Cesar Chavez, the Teamsters (!), the California grape workers, and that includes a deeply moving Passover poem by the Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi.

“Scheherazade.2” is an updated take on the mythic character. Classical music audiences know her via the Rimsky Korsakov romantic tone poem. But my Scheherazade is a feistier, grittier lady, more like the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” who speaks truth to power and fights back. In the hands of the brilliant Leila Josefowicz, for whom I wrote it, the music is full of fire, determination and—if I got it right—beauty.