John Adams on Record – Part Two


Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestHere is Part Two of my updated, expanded, 70th birthday discographical survey of John Adams’s music, parts of which were originally published in the book The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002). Again, not all of these recordings are still in print, and the original labels may have changed, so check or for current availability.

Chamber Music:

John’s Book Of Alleged Dances is Adams’s first published string quartet – eleven short, bumpy, yet rather fun bagatelles backed by a pre-recorded “rhythm track” consisting of prepared piano sounds. The Kronos does the honors here, no doubt with relish (Nonesuch), though the Lark Quartet shows what can be done to put the swing into five excerpts – or “pages” – from the collection (Bridge). The more formal 2008 String Quartet is actually his fourth – if you count the early unpublished Wavemaker, John’s Book, and tiny Fellow Traveler – and it’s a far weightier piece, streaked with reminders of the Ravel Quartet at first, yet most notable for frequent outbreaks of complex Adams energy. The St. Lawrence String Quartet revels in the piece’s frequent rhythmic difficulties; the physical effort is audible (Nonesuch).

The young, exuberant Attacca Quartet recorded all of Adams’s sanctioned works for string quartet (except for the 2014 Second Quartet, which awaits a recording), out-swinging the Kronos in John’s Book while scrambling the order of the movements (as sanctioned by Adams), making less arduous work of the String Quartet, and adding the feverishly agitated, hitherto-unrecorded Fellow Traveler as an end piece. As an all-in-one compendium of Adams quartets, go for this (Azica).

Keyboard Music:

The flagship of Adams’s small output for piano, Phrygian Gates was considered the first practical minimalist piece for solo piano (which leaves out LaMonte Young’s earlier five-hour The Well-Tuned Piano). Hermann Kretzschmar focuses more on the motor energy driving the piece (RCA), but the imaginative Gloria Cheng turns it into a sweeping musical timeline, conjuring waves of Liszt, Debussy and others in the piano virtuoso tradition (Telarc). She also includes Phrygian’s tiny, plaintive companion piece China Gates, which has now been recorded more times than any other Adams composition.

Both Gates also turn up on a thorough single-disc anthology of Adams’ piano pieces (Nonesuch). China is handled evenly by Nicolas Hodges – and Rolf Hind, like Cheng, brings forth the universal influences in Phrygian. On this disc, we also hear Adams’ in-turn-percolating, contemplative, and frantic traveling piece for violin and piano Road Movies, energetically played by violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek; a charging, rhythmically fractured toccata American Berserk (with Hodges); and another motorized, three-part road trip for two pianos (with Hodges and Hind) named after the location of his Sierra Nevada retreat, Hallelujah Junction. Naxos has its own “complete” Adams piano compendium of all of the above except Road Movies (Naxos).

Orli Shaham and Jon Kimura Parker take on Hallelujah Junction with just as much finesse and very slight variations in balances and tempos until part III, where they provide a burst of added urgency (Canary Classics). Shaham adds a limpid China Gates after performances of two works by Steven Mackey. And violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida include a more composed, less-high-strung performance of Road Movies on their enterprising American music anthology, String Poetic (Cedille).

Adams has also composed an attractive body of electronic music. Light Over Water (New Albion) combines brass instruments and synthesizer loops into a shimmering, somewhat rambling soundscape. The Hoodoo Zephyr album (Nonesuch) collects seven varied electronic pieces that offer mobile, brooding, spangled travelogues through the physical/spiritual landscapes of California and Nevada (“Bump” sounds like a close relative of “Roadrunner”).

Operas and hybrid theatre pieces:

As an opera composer, Adams has chosen to work only with the iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, who has frequently led him into what one wag called “CNN Headline Opera.” And though his early operas were highly publicized and acclaimed, I don’t think that they contain his best music. That would come later.

The question posed by Nixon In China is not whether or not Messrs. Adams, Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman were kidding us, but rather, why we should care at all about Nixon, Mao, Chou, Kissinger, etc. as warped through these contorted lenses. Granted, this is the viewpoint of someone who lived through and cannot forget the corrupt, venal Nixon Administration; subsequent generations that have had no direct contact with the emotions of the period might see it differently. More pertinently, Adams’s score is strewn with static Philip Glass-like repetitive passages that water down his distinctive personality; only in the brief final act does he write anything emotionally moving.

The first complete recording, led by de Waart with James Maddalena as the definitive, awkward Nixon (Nonesuch, 3CD), will give you a good idea of what makes this irreverent piece tick, though the opera was clearly more effective live on a PBS broadcast which apparently was never released on home video. There is also a single disc of excerpts (Nonesuch), but it includes nothing from the final act. Another recording of Nixon came along in 2009, a live production from Marin Alsop and Opera Colorado that is brighter-sounding and just as committed, with a ringing performance by tenor Robert Orth in the role of Nixon (Naxos, 3CD). Yet this performance doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, and we still don’t have any reason to get involved with these characters. Adams himself conducted the 2011 Metropolitan Opera production of Nixon (Nonesuch, DVD and Blu-ray), driving his motor rhythms with relish and point. Maddalena reprises his Nixon 24 years after the de Waart recording and a revised Sellars production enjoys the benefits of the Met’s lavish budget. But even this Establishment seal of approval doesn’t “normalize” – to use current political terminology – this work as a classic for the ages.

Even more controversial was The Death Of Klinghoffer, in which Adams, Sellars and Goodman tried to deal even-handedly with the never-to-be-resolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and caught hell for their trouble. The blowback was overblown, for while the hijackers are given some degree of humanity in Act I, Act II leaves no doubt that the opera’s creators believe that these people committed despicable, inexcusable acts of terror. The main problem with Klinghoffer is that it is undercut by its glacial pacing, although there are a number of choral episodes that pack emotional power in Kent Nagano’s hands, including some highly dramatic writing when the hijacking occurs (Nonesuch, 2CD). A bit of Adamsian mischief – decorating the chatter of a Jewish family with paraphrases of “Holiday For Strings” – was subsequently omitted from the score, nor is it on the recording. The choruses are available on their own, so that may be the best entry into the work (Nonesuch).

In his most daring leap across the idiomatic divide, Adams wrote a musical, or pop opera, about the 1994 Northridge earthquake I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky, conducting an eight-piece rock band himself (Nonesuch). But this time, the Trickster isn’t kidding, seriously tackling rock, soul, jazz, and gospel but coming up with only two good tunes, “A Sermon On Romance” and “Three Weeks And Still I’m Outta My Mind,” for Sellars’s dreary PC characters. The piece apparently has had some legs, for a second edition offering the complete 23-number score (Adams’ version has only 15) came out nearly a decade later (Naxos, 2CD). Some of the extra numbers are superior to many of the ones that Adams chose for his recording, and they widen the already-stupefyingly broad range of styles that this score has to offer. The Young Opera Group Freiburg is at least as competent with American vernacular pop as Adams’s cast – and so, this version must get the nod.

Starting a category all its own is El Nino, a semi-staged oratorio based on the Nativity which can be aptly called a 21st-century Messiah (Nonesuch, 2CD). About one-third of the score consists of settings of Spanish-language poems that comment directly and indirectly upon the storyline and inspire some of Adams’ most deeply-felt music. Ultimately one is left up in the air in colorfully-scored spangles of mystery, but with Nagano in firm command of the colors, you will be moved nonetheless. I would advise listening to El Nino intently with libretto in hand; its multi-faceted depths will surely reveal themselves.

El Nino seems to have signaled a major growth spurt in Adams’ theatrical work, for his next two operas – coming hard one right after another – reveal a deepening empathy for the material that the ubiquitous Sellars has handed him, as well as a mastery of the orchestra that has become breathtaking. Doctor Atomic, which dramatizes Dr. Robert Oppenheimer’s struggles to come to terms with his role in developing the atomic bomb, is currently available only on DVD – the Sellars production from the Netherlands Opera (Opus Arte, 2DVD) and Penny Woolcock’s Metropolitan Opera production (Sony, 2DVD). A most revealing way to experience this work on the Opus Arte DVD is to turn off the video – thus avoiding Sellars’s pretentious staging and tendency to shove close-up cameras down the singers’ throats (from what I’ve seen, the Sony video is less distracting) – and revel in Adams’s best operatic music to date, with its ravishing orchestrations and tough-minded homages to Varèse in glorious DTS surround. There is also a Doctor Atomic Symphony where passages from the opera are developed independently, sort of like Hindemith’s symphonies from his operas. But despite the best efforts of Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony (Nonesuch) and Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos, SACD), the piece comes off as relentlessly grim and ultimately overbearing.

A Flowering Tree – the first Adams opera that relies upon a narrative line – has a score made of lighter-weighted material but is no less sophisticated as it recalls a 2000-year-old Indian fairy tale about a young girl who changes herself into a tree (shades of Daphne, though Adams’s inspiration was The Magic Flute). The music scampers fetchingly through much of Act I while managing a delicious glittering radiance during the transformation scenes throughout the work – and there are syncopated episodes for the Spanish-singing chorus that verge on Stravinsky or take cues from pop and jazz. Adams leads the London Symphony and Schola Cantorum de Venezuela; he does an capable job but I can imagine a more theatrically-inclined conductor finding depths of expression in this piece that the composer may be unaware of (Nonesuch, 2CD).

Next came a second, even more extravagant oratorio called The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a scintillating, even surreal retelling of the Passion fused with librettist Sellars’s PC contemporary parallels as cobbled together from several sources. In this companion piece to El Nino, a troubled Mary Magdalene and her more practical sister Martha run a House of Hospitality for destitute women in California’s Central Valley (the late labor leader César Chávez even gets a name check), and their mission of helping the poor becomes intertwined with the last days of their houseguest, Jesus. But you don’t have to buy into that premise – or even be a Christian – in order to get a deep charge out of Adams’ impassioned, sometimes violent response to the texts and his explorations of sonorities new even for him. With Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and L.A. Master Chorale making its difficulties seem like nothing, The Gospel comes off on discs as both a sonic spectacular and a meditation with a surprising intimacy that draws you in (Deutsche Grammophon, 2CD). The superb engineering allows us to explore at our leisure the wealth of exotic instrumental and choral detail that Adams has put in his score like the jangling of the cimbalom, the warehouse of percussion items, the unusually dark shadings of the three counter-tenors, the grumbling and shouting of the chorus in the mob scenes. I think DG made the right call by releasing The Gospel in audio-only form so listeners at home can concentrate on what Adams wrote without the distraction of visuals.


The John Adams Earbox (Nonesuch, 10 CD) is a marvelously thorough trip through almost every work up to the mid-1990s, sagely distilling the operas to one disc apiece, with lots of composer recordings and some scoops that were once available nowhere else – the energetic, early-Stravinsky-influenced Slonimsky’s Earbox and a too-controlled Lollapalooza from Nagano; a forceful, luminous Harmonium from Adams in San Francisco. Hallelujah Junction, a career retrospective of excerpts released in conjunction with Adams’s autobiography (Nonesuch, 2CD), is a much cheaper alternative – and it does the Earbox one better by bringing the Adams story up to date as far as A Flowering Tree. If you want to compress an introduction to Adams even more, the single-disc all-Adams soundtrack to the film I Am Love is not a bad way to start; you get all of The Chairman Dances and Lollapalooza, two-thirds of Harmonielehre and excerpts from Shaker Loops, Klinghoffer and Fearful Symmetries (Nonesuch). The Berlin Philharmonic’s audio/video John Adams Edition is most valuable since it brings the Adams story forward 20 years after the Earbox leaves off – and the lavish packaging, with three video documentaries accompanying sumptuously-played performances led by five different conductors (including Adams), seals the deal (Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, 4CD, 2Blu-ray).