John Adams: I Still Dance

JOHN COOLIDGE ADAMS

BORN: February 15, 1947. Worcester, MA. Lives in Berkeley, CA

COMPOSED: 2019, on co-commission from the San Francisco Symphony and Carnegie Hall

WORLD PREMIERE: At these concerts

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, taiko drum, chimes, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tom-tom, djembe, marimba, keyboard, electric bass, and strings

DURATION: About 8 mins

THE BACKSTORY The unique creative exchange between John Adams and the San Francisco Symphony spans four decades and represents one of the most significant success stories in the collaboration among contemporary American composers, orchestras, and audiences.

In 1979, the thirty-two-year-old Adams was named New Music Adviser to the San Francisco Symphony, in which capacity he curated the fledgling New and Unusual Music series. A watershed for the emerging composer came with the world premiere in 1981 of his first commission for the SFS, the ambitious choral-orchestral canvas Harmonium, with its settings of poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Under then-Music Director Edo de Waart, Adams was subsequently appointed the first-ever composer-in-residence at the SFS. This post, which he held from 1982 to 1985, led to the creation of his milestone symphonic work Harmonielehre—the achievement that in many ways signaled Adams’s “arrival” as a contemporary American master of the orchestra.

A fresh phase of the composer’s partnership with the San Francisco Symphony was launched a quarter-century ago with the appointment of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a dynamic leader who embraced the legacy and future potential of American mavericks. The music of John Adams has continued to play a prominent role throughout the MTT era through a steady stream of important commissions and premieres. Just two years ago, the SFS presented the local premieres of especially significant achievements of recent years: The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a contemporary take on the Passion oratorio, and the “dramatic symphony” cum violin concerto Scheherazade.2. MTT and the ensemble have additionally made two recordings of Adams’s music for the SFS Media label, garnering the 2012 Grammy award for Best Orchestral Performance for their accounts of Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Adams's SFS commissions under MTT have ranged widely across formats and genres: the millennial “nativity oratorio” El NiƱo (1999); the “musical autobiography" My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003); the folk-tale opera A Flowering Tree (2006); and Absolute Jest, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra commissioned to celebrate the SFS centennial season in 2012 (which MTT and the SFS recorded for SFS Media, together with Grand Pianola Music, the latter conducted by the composer).

Adams had already gotten to know MTT well before he took over the reins at the SFS. At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1983, the conductor led the American Composers Orchestra in the premiere of the string orchestra version of the 1978 septet Shaker Loops—a pinnacle of the early Adams style. It was MTT who encouraged Adams to write Short Ride in a Fast Machine (which has gone onto become his single most frequently performed composition), and who led its premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1986. The composer singles out MTT’s work with the New World Symphony—the Miami-based orchestral academy he founded in 1987, where Adams has been invited to conduct and mentor—as “the most gratifying” of MTT’s projects in which he has participated.

The brief but scintillating new piece being introduced on this program, I Still Dance, was composed by Adams in honor of this final, 25th season of MTT’s tenure. Inscribed “for my longtime friends, Joshua and Michael,” the score is dedicated to MTT and his husband, Joshua Robison. I Still Dance celebrates “the continued youthful vitality” of MTT himself, as well as of his spouse, a former gymnast. “They both still have a youthful energy,” Adams remarks.

THE MUSIC Crafted with immense intricacy and pointillist detail, I Still Dance takes its place alongside a small but highly characterful group of short orchestral pieces in Adams’s catalogue. Without any existing models in mind, Adams says that his starting point for I Still Dance was “a powerful musical energy” that took him to unexpected places: Once the wrestling with a piece has begun, “I never know what is going to come down the pike.”

I Still Dance sustains an explosive, relentless intensity from the first downbeat through most of its span. At the same time, Adams condenses multiple events and an enormous amount of contrast within this framework, creating in effect a pocket symphony. The driving energy comes from perpetual motion figurations undergirded by fiercely accentuated chords and deep, rumbling pulsation.

Echoes of Adams’s early style are discernible, like the light from distant stars. For example, the composer has commented on the lasting impression made by “the signature jabs and ‘bullets’ of the brass” from Duke Ellington’s band, one of his early musical loves. These gestures link Short Ride and the opera Nixon in China with later works like Doctor Atomic (especially its storm and countdown scenes) and similarly punctuate I Still Dance.

Adams weaves his material into an electrifying tapestry of contrapuntal rhythms, wheeling arpeggios, and prismatic harmonies. The sort of obsessively repeated, Beethoven-inspired rhythmic motifs explored in such relatively recent works as Absolute Jest acquire even greater force against this kaleidoscopic backdrop.

I Still Dance presses forward unpredictably: a constant volley of pithy motifs in multiple directions across the soundscape generated by its vast orchestra. Bright flecks of melody from winds and tuned percussion drift by without warning. In recent scores, Adams has shown a fascination with the sound of bass guitar (a subtle but key element, for example in his new piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?)—here fortified by the Japanese taiko as well as djembe, a goblet-shaped drum originating from West Africa.

But just as the churning maelstrom of energy seems poised to rouse for a climax, Adams dims the lights for what he describes as a “soft landing.” Suspenseful, with a dash of the elegiac, this concluding wind-down seems to cleave the dancer from the dance.—Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs at memeteria.com

(September 2019)