Sunday, January 28, 2001

On Top, but Ever the Risk-Taker
John Adams composes accessible music that stretches boundaries. His belief in work that challenges means controversy is never far away.


Composer John Adams
  ROBERT DURELL / Los Angeles Times

     BERKELEY--In 1997, the year John Adams turned 50, it was already tempting to call him America's leading composer. The country, of course, is too big and diverse for any such label. But four years ago, this much was incontestable: There was no serious American composer who could consistently get more attention or press; none who could generate the same eager anticipation for a major work at home or abroad; none as much in demand or performed or recorded, none who commanded the same degree of respect from both fellow musicians and general audiences.
     Four years hence, we still can't claim that Adams is America's most important composer--Elliott Carter, at 92, is more dazzling than ever; the reputation of Lou Harrison, 83, is finally on the rise; and the profound influence of Philip Glass and Steve Reich has not lessened. But since turning 50, Adams has produced three masterworks, each grander and greater than the last, that assure his place in history. In a recent profile in the New Yorker, the critic Alex Ross concluded, after interviewing Adams, that he had "just spent the morning with a man who was never going to die."
     The first of those three works, a rollicking piano concerto, "Century Rolls," will receive its first Los Angeles performance Friday night, played by Emanuel Ax, the pianist for whom it was written, when the composer conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of his music.
     "Naive and Sentimental Music," which the Philharmonic premiered two years ago under Esa-Pekka Salonen, is a symphony in all but name that began the sweepstakes of monumental millennium symphonies

Adams' oratorio "El Niño," with countertenors Brian Cummings, left, Daniel Bubeck and Steve Rickards, was a national event.
  ROBERT DURELL / Los Angeles Times

on an extremely high level. Last month, Adams unveiled "El Niño," a staged oratorio on the Nativity story as his offering in another millennium sweepstakes, this for oratorios, passions or operas on the significance of Christ for our times.
     The Paris premiere, in which "El Niño" was staged as an opera, directed by Peter Sellars, was an international event. The North American premiere two weeks ago by the San Francisco Symphony and semi-staged by Sellars was a national event.
     Still, Adams is a classical composer, which means he isn't about to be accused of taking advantage of the cult of celebrity any time soon. His picture is a staple in the arts pages of the Bay Area press, but dressed in jeans, a sweater and leather jacket, he attracts no attention on the day after the San Francisco premiere as he enters a neighborhood cafe in the Rockridge section of Berkeley for a chat.
     He is friendly and tired, and orders a lemonade. His latest problem is the kind all composers dream about, the three performances of "El Niño" are completely sold out, and he cannot find a ticket for his Spanish teacher (the oratorio uses some texts by South American poets, which led him to learn Spanish).
     One of the indications that Adams has reached the pinnacle of his profession is how comfortable he is in the role. That was not always the case. When "The Chairman Dances," an orchestral fantasy on themes from his groundbreaking 1987 opera, "Nixon in China," received an early performance at the Ojai

Dismissed by many when it premiered in 1987, "Nixon in China" has become a classic.

Festival some 15 years ago, the audience reacted with astonished enthusiasm. The composer, used to being controversial, was convinced that he must have done something terribly wrong. Now his level of success might make it seem he can do no wrong.
     In fact, Adams has managed the considerable trick of writing accessible music that still surprises and challenges its listeners--and he continues to generate controversy.
     "El Niño" is no exception. The flash point, as it has been in all of his works for theater, is the contribution of Sellars. Unlike the operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer" or the updated musical "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky," "El Niño" is not based on a provocative idea, but rather on Adams' own desire to come to terms with the miracle of the Nativity. The fact that it sets texts from the Bible, the Apocrypha and the very beautiful poetry of four Latin American writers (three of whom are women, giving the oratorio a uniquely feminine perspective on the Nativity) is not wildly upsetting to most audiences. What bothered many San Franciscans--as they made clear by their complaints at intermission and empty seats for the second part--was sensory overload. There was a lot to look at. Sellars brought the world into the concert hall, a place where many people come for escape. But here, the singers (three soloists and three countertenors) were in contemporary costume and barefoot, acting as well as singing. They were joined by three dancers. The orchestra and chorus performed in street clothes, while Sellars projected a film he had made of Latino street life in Los Angeles. Supertitles spelled out the text in English, and when the singing was in Spanish, in both languages. Adams says he loved it all. A Wall Street Journal review of "El Niño" in Paris, however, suggested that all the work needed was "a prefrontal Sellarsotomy."
     Adams chalks it up to the shock of the new. Subscription audiences, he says "have been played down to for so long that they are used to getting the same fare over and over again in the same structure. [The] programming people's ideas of something really novel is a theme. For example, having the orchestra come in not wearing penguin suits alarmed a lot of people."
     Actually, even Adams admits he was concerned when Sellars told him that the orchestra and chorus should perform in street clothes. He remembered his experiences with leaving concert dress up to the players in the '80s, when he led a series with the San Francisco Symphony called New and Unusual Music.
     "I told the orchestra to just wear what it wanted. The mixture of clothes was something else. A trumpet player, say, would try too hard to be hip, and he would look very conspicuous. But last night, it was natural and not an event. And I think it was very beautiful."
     The singers in the oratorio, he points out, portray Mary and Joseph as ordinary people confronted with a miracle, as every new parent is. "So imagine if the orchestra were in tails. It would have made the impression that we are these kind of people, and the orchestra is here to make us sound better. Whereas now it felt like everybody was celebrating the same thing. Now it was like a village passion play."
     Adams and Sellars have worked together long enough not to be too concerned with initial reactions to their collaboration. Their two large-scale operas, which generated considerable antagonism when they premiered, are being newly reconsidered and revived-- "Why is it they only speak of terminal patients and operas with that word?" Adams asks. He recalls how many people originally dismissed "Nixon in China" (1987) as fleeting pop art that would be of no interest in five years.
     In fact, it has become a classic and is probably the most talked-about American opera of the last quarter century. In June, when English National Opera staged the Sellars production, the opera was hailed by British critics as a modern masterpiece. It was said to be the hottest London opera ticket of the season, and it will now enter the opera company's regular repertory.
     Indeed, after 13 years, "Nixon in China"--excerpts of which, in a suite called "The Nixon Tapes," will also be included in Adams' Los Angeles Philharmonic program--could not sound fresher. Some of the musical ideas are so striking that Adams is still profitably mining them. In "El Niño," Joseph first sings in the same stuttering fashion as Nixon--both are naive, macho characters headed for spiritual revelations. And as Adams explains, Alice Goodman's extraordinarily perceptive libretto for "Nixon" only grows in relevance over time.
     "To me," Adams says, " 'Nixon in China' is really about the collision of the two ways of looking at how people live their lives. Do they follow market principles of life, which we are in a hectic, orgasmic state over right now? Or should they choose Communism, which, in its purest and most idealistic form, is about a life of sharing? But, of course, the whole issue gets completely messed up in the opera by the fact that you have these two complicated egos banging their heads against each other. That produces the comedy."
     There was certainly nothing comic about the protagonists and their points of view in the next Adams/Sellars opera, which was based on the Palestinian takeover of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro. The continued relevance of "The Death of Klinghoffer"--a poetic and disturbing vision of religious strife that particularly upset American Jews because it gave eloquent voice to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle--goes without saying. "Do we still have religious warfare in the world?" Adams rhetorically asks. "I think so."
     "Klinghoffer" is also having what Adams calls "an interesting outbreak." Finnish Opera unveils a new production

A revival and a film of "The Death of Klinghoffer" are in the works.

directed by the British documentarian Tony Palmer on Saturday. And Channel Four, the independent British television network, is about to begin filming a multimillion-dollar, feature-length film of the opera. Thomas Allen, one of Britain's most admired singers, will portray the captain of the hijacked Achille Lauro.
     The outbreaks are likely to continue. The operas, "El Niño" and Adams' best orchestral music operate on many levels at the same time. They are simply too rich to be grasped on a single hearing and they invite reinterpretation, which is the hallmark of great classical music.
     It is this combination of depth and accessibility that sets Adams apart.
     Adams doesn't stretch the musical language. He is outspoken in his rejection of the Modernism of Pierre Boulez or Milton Babbitt, and he embraces the American vernacular. He delights in Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. His clarinet concerto, "Gnarly Buttons," swings like Benny Goodman. Glass and Reich were strong early influences, and their Minimalism still propels his music. He likes the lush harmonies of early 20th century symphonists, particularly that of Sibelius and early Schoenberg. He also admires a good pop tune.
     But Adams finds new uses and new contexts for his appropriations, and they always wind up sounding like Adams. World music began to influence his works in the '90s, but not in obvious ways. The Violin Concerto, one of his greatest pieces, has the long, meandering lines of Indian raga, although there are no indication of Indian scales or rhythms, just the sense of rambling into distant territories.
     The "Gymnopedies"--simple, spare, drifting piano pieces by Erik Satie--have taken on a strange and exceptionally moving role in many of his recent works. Leon Klinghoffer falls to his death to slow, unbearably sad music that Adams Please see Adams, Page 66
Adams: Interest in Electronic Music Cultivated      Continued from Page 66
     named after the Satie works. There is a rich, sweeter allusion to Satie in the slow movement of "Century Rolls," which stands in contrast to the outer movements that celebrate the 20th century's fascination with automated rhythms, everything from the early piano rolls to percussion machines.
     An exhibition of Adamsiana at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library, mounted in conjunction with the "El Niño" premiere, serves to remind us that Adams also has a background in experimental music. When he led the New and Unusual concerts in San Francisco in the '80s, he programmed and conducted all sorts of pieces by composers from John Cage to Elliott Carter to Diamanda Galas. Whoever was making news got heard, and he took plenty of criticism for it: On display is a review from the San Francisco Examiner that dismisses one program as "crap."
     Adams, who was born in New Hampshire and received a traditionally Modernist music education at Harvard, moved west after graduation, drawn to the free-wheeling Bay Area arts scene in the early '70s. And although he readily embraced that scene, he did find that after an evening of performing wild avant-garde music, he would go home craving the sustenance of a late Beethoven string quartet. Nevertheless, the years spent experimenting had their impact.
     Adams got the bug for electronic and mechanical music early, and he has never lost it. "Century Rolls" works through, and not for the first time, his fascination with the rhythmic intricacy and urgency in the experimental piano roll music by Conlon Nancarrow, the American expatriate composer who spent most of his career in Mexico City hand-punching piano rolls to create superhuman effects. Adams' music for orchestra always includes elaborate parts for synthesizers, and he insists that they be programmed correctly--he maintains a Web page devoted to how that can be accomplished.
     And he laments that these days, the music world isn't as lively in its use of technology as it was 30 years ago, when he moved to the Bay Area. "It is sort of strange that now when everything is so tech-heavy, we are in a slightly retroactive period," he observes. "But I suspect the next generation will move forward."
     But where Adams would most like to be a pioneer is in the most controversial application of technology--amplification in the concert hall and opera house. He writes for slightly amplified--"sound-enhanced"--singers. He doesn't care for the grand operatic voice, with its huge and biologically unnatural sound, or all those rolled Rs. At the early performances of "Nixon" and "Klinghoffer," what he got was a trade-off--intelligibility of words but artificial electronic balances. "El Niño" in San Francisco was more to his liking. The soloists were so subtly enhanced that the amplification was barely noticeable, although the chorus still suffered from the glaring sound from loudspeakers.
     "Last night was the state of the art," Adams insisted, "and that's Mark Grey," the composer's favored sound designer. Because of the film, the sound reflecting "clouds" in Davies Symphony Hall had to be removed, and the musicians had to be set far back on the stage in what turns out to be an acoustically dead spot. "The first rehearsal didn't have any sound," Adams says, "and what Mark did was miraculous." Still, Adams emphasizes that where we are today with sound enhancement is where the Wright brothers were with flight.
     "But I want to establish a tradition for it right now while I'm still alive, so that when I'm not around anymore and good halls have sound systems already into them, this will not be a problem. My singers were a little upset when they first heard that they would be miked, but now they are totally into it."
     All along it has been the musicians Adams first tries to please, and he credits them with an essential role in creating interest in his work. He is composing a big solo piano piece for Garrick Olhsson, which will have its premiere at Carnegie Hall in a year, because he so enjoyed conducting Copland's Piano Concerto with him last year in New York. And Adams credits conductors as the ones who set the tone for supporting new music in the community.
     "The bottom line is really who the conductor is," he says.
     "People can say it's the community or the [orchestra's] executive director. But if you have a conductor like Esa-Pekka [Salonen], MTT or Simon [Rattle], then things happen."
     In San Francisco, Adams says, Michael Tilson Thomas "has created the feeling that going to hear a new piece is a pleasure and an exciting thing, and maybe almost the most exciting thing you can do."
     On the other hand, Adams points to an orchestra manager who once asked if his music director might call to pick the composer's brain about new music. "I said, 'All right, but a music director shouldn't be buying a book called 'Contemporary Music for Idiots.' He never called."
     If conductors are the key, then Los Angeles is perched to become an Adams mecca. Salonen is one of Adams' finest interpreters, and he plans to conduct "El Niño" with the Philharmonic in 2003, shortly after Disney Concert Hall opens. Kent Nagano, the principal conductor-designate of Los Angeles Opera, may be Adams' greatest champion. He premiered "Klinghoffer" and "El Niño," and he conducted "Nixon" here 10 years ago. Grant Gershon, who takes over as music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale next season, conducted "Ceiling/Sky" in New York and on CD, and Adams wrote the two-piano piece "Hallelujah Junction" for Gershon and Los Angeles pianist Gloria Cheng. John DeMain, now music director of Opera Pacific, oversaw the world premiere of "Nixon in China" in Houston. And it was the Los Angeles Philharmonic's general director, Deborah Borda, who, together with Adams, started the New and Usual Music series when she worked for the San Francisco Symphony.
     So now Los Angeles presents Adams with a potential new dilemma--a local Adams battle of the bands. But what better sign than that could there be of Adams' exceptional place in American music?

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times