John Adams On Record – Part One


Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestMy most vivid memory of John Adams was way back near the beginning of his career, in 1983 in then-Avery Fisher Hall. His Grand Pianola Music had just received its New York premiere. Something like half the audience was standing and cheering, while the other half, mainly from upstairs, was booing even more loudly. Adams comes onstage wearing a buckskin coat, peers out at all this tumult, and shrugs. He seemed like a renegade then, and not many could picture him half a lifetime later as a revered American master whom scared young performers approach on bended knee, his compositions played constantly all over the world.

John Adams (Christine Alicino)

Today (Feb. 15, 2017), Adams turns 70 – and as I do from time to time on milestone anniversaries, here is another updated, expanded discographical survey, parts of which were originally published in the book The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002). As always, not all of these recordings are still in print, and the original labels may have changed, so check or for current availability. Since this discography is larger than the others, this article will appear in two installments:

Although John Adams is usually lumped together with the other famous so-called minimalists, he belongs, in fact, to no school at all. Rather, he used minimalism as a launching pad for a stream of compositions that have run the spectrum from screwball lampoons to gravely serious, even emotional statements. His most recent compositions have become increasingly complex organisms, all but abandoning any temptations to fall back upon repetition. Unlike the other principal minimalists, Adams has always wanted his music to be performed by conventional ensembles, so there has never been a need for a dedicated Adams equivalent of the Philip Glass Ensemble. He is also a fine conductor of his works as well.

Adams’s irrepressible irreverence for all that is sacred, and his penchant for raiding American pop culture (or just about anything) for inspiration will always be a problem for the stuffed shirts. But that is probably why he was, as of the turn of the 21st century, statistically the most often-played American symphonic composer. His music communicates directly, even thrillingly at times, though not always in the way the composer intended.

Orchestral Music:

To my mind, the orchestra has inspired Adams’s deepest, most satisfying scores, as well as his zaniest entertainments. An early work, Christian Zeal and Activity is a simple devotional hymn upon which a holy roller sermon is superimposed; knowing Adams, he’s probably pulling your leg. Common Tones In Simple Time unveils Adams’s completely distinctive take on minimalism, with floating orchestral textures over a pulse. Both can be conveniently heard on the Edo de Waart/San Francisco Symphony The Chairman Dances CD (Nonesuch), along with a grand, reverberantly-recorded rendition of the zesty orchestral fanfare Short Ride In A Fast Machine and the gently enigmatic Tromba lontana.

In Short Ride, Simon Rattle/Birmingham is more boisterous (Warner Classics); Marin Alsop/Bournemouth (Naxos) and Peter Oundjian/Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos) are harder-driving; Stephen Mosko’s Netherlands Wind Ensemble recording is smaller in scale, yet detailed and energetic (Chandos). Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco is just as reverberant as de Waart but a little bit less zesty, live from the orchestra’s Centennial Gala Concert (SFS Media, SACD).

The line on Shaker Loops, the piece that put Adams on the map, is that it is saturated with minimalist patterns (true enough), yet it owes even more to the perpetual motion ostinatos of Sibelius, an unsung apostle of minimalism (Glass’s “Floe” also blatantly borrows from Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony). Originally written for string septet, Loops also exists in a string orchestra transcription, where the denser textures sometimes evoke Petrouchka. Adams’s own recording of the orchestra version with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s is refreshingly brisk, direct and thrusting (Nonesuch). Christopher Warren-Green’s London Chamber Orchestra nearly matches the composer in tempo yet offers somewhat softer-focused textures (Virgin/Erato), and de Waart/San Francisco deliver an even hazier, weightier performance (Philips). Alsop, in a splendidly played survey of Adams in many of his moods, straddles a middle ground between the composer and de Waart in tempo while bringing a heightened intensity of her own (Naxos). In the septet version, Sian Edwards and Ensemble Modern cut a tough, abrasive profile, with more extreme dynamic fluctuations than all of the above (RCA), superseding the roughly-played recording by the Ridge Quartet and three ringers (New Albion).

The immediately appealing Harmonium expands the Adams palette of Sibelian ostinatos and floating ambiences much further to include a symphony orchestra as well as a large chorus singing texts of John Donne and Emily Dickinson. The airy, sensual performance by de Waart and his San Franciscan forces (ECM) trumps the somewhat earthbound Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony and Chorus (Telarc), although only the latter disc offers a coupling, Rachmaninoff’s The Bells.

Grand Pianola Music nearly provoked a riot at its New York premiere in 1983 – and it’s still easy to hear why. Part One is quite light and pretty at first, but before long, one becomes aware that Adams is now mocking minimalism. The controversial Beethovenian Part Two, “On The Dominant Divide,” is gleefully, almost intolerably vulgar, yet many took it as a sincere Romantic statement and loved it. With Adams and the London Sinfonietta (Nonesuch), you cannot miss the point; the passages of delicacy are always countermanded in the brashest terms, though even Adams seems taken a bit aback by his deliberately awful Big Tune in Part Two. Much later, Adams tried again with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media, SACD); the results this time from the perspective of a 67-year-old eminence grisé are more settled, less brash, though the basics of tempos and such are similar. As led by Mosko, the Netherlands Wind Ensemble applies a patina of European polish and politeness that undercuts the jokes (Chandos), while Ransom Wilson and Solisti New York capture the mockery with appropriate blunt force (EMI).

Grand Pianola Music’s trashings clearly forecasted a move away from minimalism in Adams’s next big work, Harmonielehre. Now we hear many new things – gorgeously lyrical streaks of ardor and anguish, an expansion of the symphony orchestra’s possibilities, reminiscences of earlier 20th century styles. De Waart/San Francisco offer a beautiful, multi-faceted performance (Nonesuch), while Rattle and his Birmingham Symphony (using Adams’s revised edition) are even more full-bodied and ravishing (Warner Classics). Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra take a slightly more relaxed journey through the landscape (Chandos). The San Franciscans returned to Harmonielehre a quarter-century later under Tilson Thomas (SFS Media SACD), now a better orchestra than ever and treated to the most sumptuously detailed sound yet, with MTT bringing darker Sibelius Fourth colors to the second movement.

A spinoff of the opera Nixon In China, The Chairman Dances may be Adams’s most often-played piece, where minimalist engines chug away alongside parodies of sleazy easy-listening dance bands. De Waart/San Francisco suavely project the nostalgia and the sleaze (Nonesuch), David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony capture more of the bounce of the rhythms (Argo/Decca), Rattle’s crisp articulation and ingrained jazz feeling really makes the piece swing (Warner Classics), and John Mauceri and the slightly square Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (Philips) trail behind.

By now, a pattern is emerging where “serious” and “trickster” pieces (in Adams’s words) constantly alternate as if to deliberately befuddle fans and critics. On one superb Adams-led disc (Nonesuch), the yin of an achingly compassionate setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, The Wound Dresser, as sung by Sanford Sylvan, is followed by the yang of Fearful Symmetries, a happy-go-lucky, constantly changing mosaic of syncopated jokes lashed together by minimalist motors. Alsop has also recorded The Wound Dresser in a moving performance with the richly-upholstered baritone of Nathan Gunn, followed by Adams’ haunted arrangement of Busoni’s Berceuse elegiaque (Naxos). Sylvan turned up again many years later, in similar yet minutely more nuanced voice, in a lighter-textured performance of The Wound Dresser with Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony that is part of a thoughtfully-conceived program of 20th century classics, Music for a Time Of War (Pentatone, SACD).

Then, following the beautiful El Dorado, played by Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra (Nonesuch), we have another amusing departure, the Chamber Symphony, which conceals its homage to Schoenberg underneath pounding pulses and wild polyphony unabashedly inspired by cartoons. Edwards and Ensemble Modern unravel all the complexities effortlessly and catch some of the antic humor of the “Roadrunner” movement (RCA), as do Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra (Warner Classics). But they sound poker-faced next to the composer and the London Sinfonietta, who bring a jaunty impudence that perfectly matches his loopy liner notes (Nonesuch). Thus encouraged, in 2007 Adams wrote a sequel that, in a nod to antique campy horror movies, he calls Son Of Chamber Symphony. It’s more of the same, with the stop-and-start cartoon element frolicking away in the first movement and frantic self-parodies in the third, proving that 21st-century canonization as The Leading American Composer hasn’t dampened his congenital irreverence. Adams leads it with puckish brio (Nonesuch).

Both Chamber Symphonies can also be heard on a disc by Alan Pierson and Alarm Will Sound where each piece is prefaced by a “podcast” from Meet The Composer that informally walks us through the music (Cantaloupe). Despite the claim to be a first, the concept is nothing new – I remember a similar approach, likewise with musical examples, on a 1950s LP introducing children to Stravinsky’s Danse Russe – and the casual NPR-style dialogues and production effects are obviously aimed at hip young millennials (they even work In-N-Out Burger into the act). But the podcast, and the lively, humorous performances, presumably have the hearty approval of the composer, who participates in the talks.

The Violin Concerto gets off to a fascinating start with polytonal ascending lines over a walking bass, which Adams imaginatively expands without losing the pulse, and the second movement is openly beautiful with some disturbing Ives-ish undertones. Gidon Kremer fiddles with enthusiastic ardor, accompanied by Nagano and the LSO (Nonesuch), while Robert McDuffie and Christoph Eschenbach/Houston Symphony trade some incisive detail for more elegance (Telarc). With Lollapalooza , Adams indulges in pure, jumping, syncopated fun via Tilson Thomas’s hard-rockin’ performance on New World Jazz (RCA). And while Adams’s clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons is both serious and mocking – Adams’s recording (Nonesuch) has more bite in that respect than Alain Damiens/David Robertson (Virgin) – it sounds oddly disillusioned to me.

A rollicking piano concerto triggered by impressions of mechanical piano rolls, Century Rolls continues Adams’s personal use of minimalism in a complex, stuttering, jazzy, exuberant way – with a songful slow movement that owes its soul unmistakably to Satie’s Gymnopedies. Here, an atypically brittle Emanuel Ax, backed by Christoph von Dohnanyi/Cleveland, displays a stronger affinity for new music than his discography would indicate – and he also inspired the whimsical title of the slow movement, “Manny’s Gym” (Nonesuch).

Adams observed the end of the 20th century with his biggest orchestral canvas up to that point, a 44-minute, three-movement symphony that summed up his now-extravagant orchestral manner, bearing the cheeky title Naive And Sentimental Music. Again, he uses the slow movement to pay tribute to an iconoclastic composer, this time evoking a modern Ivesian landscape with electric guitar obbligato – and again, it turns out to be the best portion of the work. The dedicatee, Esa-Pekka Salonen, revels in its colors with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Nonesuch).

Ives turns up again in the next century as the primary influence of Adams’s mystery-laden reaction to the 9/11 disaster, On the Transmigration Of Souls – for which Adams received his first Pulitzer Prize. With its use of taped street sounds and spoken recitation of the dead names against a shimmering, microtonal-tinged orchestra and chorus, Adams creates an impressionistic collage which gives way to a choral treatment of messages left by the surviving families that grows fearsomely disturbing. Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic made this their first recording as a team, released all by its lonesome as a CD single (Nonesuch). The 2001-vintage Guide To Strange Places is actually a superior and much more appealing piece, exuberantly driven by the unmistakeable Adams-cum-Stravinsky engines at the start. Eventually it heads toward some very strange places, indeed, before re-emerging almost comically into the light. Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony officiate (Nonesuch).

Just when you think Adams has exhausted his Ives fixation, he burrows even more explicitly into his fellow New Englander’s world in My Father Knew Charles Ives (no, his father didn’t know Charles Ives, but we’ll let that pass). The first movement, “Concord,” gleefully raids Ives’ layering techniques and penchant for folk-like material yet always with the Adams orchestral sheen. By the time we get to the third and last movement, “Mountain,” though, Adams has thrown off Ives and re-established his shimmering, driving language. The Dharma At Big Sur, written in the same year (2003), pays homage to two California music gurus, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, in a raga-like structure with a slow, gorgeous, contemplative opening and an undulating, faster, colorfully droning workout. The eclectic electric violinist Tracy Silverman is the pitch-bending soloist, and Adams leads the BBC Symphony in his most Asian flavored work to date. Though both works are each approximately 26 1/2 minutes in length, My Father occupies one disc and The Dharma the other in a unique right-coast-left-coast package that is really a set of two CD singles (Nonesuch, 2CD).

Again finding himself in the right place at the right time, Adams celebrated the ascension of the young Gustavo Dudamel to the head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 with City Noir, a reaction to the “noir” films that defined L.A in the 1940s and `50s. Even for Adams, this is a complex, busy-busy-busy-sounding piece written for a huge orchestra loaded with percussion, with plenty of pizzazz and sultry atmosphere. There is stylized jazz in the form of a trap-drum set, and alto saxophone and trumpet solos that might have been at home on certain Frank Sinatra records of the mid-20th century. Although Adams claims that it forms a trilogy with El Dorado and The Dharma At Big Sur, it doesn’t sound like either of them. Dudamel’s feverish world premiere performance can only be sampled on a download or DVD at present (Deutsche Grammophon). On CD, it’s Robertson and the St. Louis in a good, if somewhat more controlled and less-jazzy performance of a 2013 “revision” of the score (Nonesuch).

While some might have imagined that Grand Pianola Music’s third movement was a sincere homage to Beethoven, Absolute Jest is the real thing, a marvelous 25-minute scherzo that takes fragments of some Beethoven’s most energetic music and runs them through Adams’s compositional processes which by 2013 had grown increasingly sophisticated. Adams meant this as a serious piece of work, falling back on the Latin word “jesta” – or “notable deed” – but he also calls it a “colossal scherzo,” and scherzo means joke. Really, though, the piece leans toward the latter. If you know your Beethoven, or even if you don’t, Absolute Jest will delight you, entertain you, and also perhaps provide some food for deep thought. Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony, and the St, Lawrence String Quartet is up front and center (SFS Media, SACD).

Next, Adams wrote a Saxophone Concerto so that a neglected member of the wind family might get a highly-visible platform on the 2013 new music scene. He gets the alto sax, mellifluously played by Timothy McAllister with Robertson and St. Louis (Nonesuch), to sing with an urbane sophistication familiar from City Noir, with the composer’s jazz heroes safely tucked away completely out of earshot. The piece is a near-duplicate of City Noir structurally – fast-slow-fast, with an agitated break in the slow movement – and in the overall scheme of Adams’s output, seems like a skillfully-wrought yet non-essential sequel.

Adams turned to yet another unlikely muse, the legendary Scheherazade, in Scheherazade.2 (2015), a 47-minute epic that may be the longest violin concerto to crack the repertory (Nonesuch). Adams drags the long-suffering, storytelling Arabian woman into modern times, where she is pursued by “true believers” (Islamic fundamentalists?), engages in a love scene, stands trial before a court of religious zealots who argue heatedly among themselves, and finally escapes to some kind of calm sanctuary. The piece is shaped like a four-movement symphony, with a slow second movement depicting the love scene and a scherzo-like third movement where the solo violin representing Scheherazade seems to be offering calm rejoinders to the violent string outbursts representing the zealots.

The solo violin’s entrance at the top of the piece strikes me as almost a paraphrase of the famous motif that launches and runs through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Yet the reminders of Rimsky end there as Adams goes on a journey that rumbles through several regions of tough, difficult-to-map terrain, leaving “minimalism” far, far behind. The astonishing Leila Josefowicz, who plays this difficult, discursive piece from memory in live performance, possesses and devours it on CD and Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony are in luscious, opulently-recorded form.

Next week: Adams’s chamber and theatre works.