Apparently, this week is all about departures: last night at Carnegie Hall, American composer John Adams conducted the American Composers Orchestra, in a program of his own music. It was the final concert of his four year residency at Carnegie, which has featured major American orchestras performing his music as well as the Adams-curated In Your Ear festival, blending new, world, and popular music. (There also was to have been a world premiere of the Doctor Atomic Symphony in March, but unfortunately that event never came to fruition.)
There is a long tradition of composers conducting their own music at Carnegie: Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Copland and Bernstein have all conducted here. In fact, Carnegie's opening night concert in 1891 featured Tchaikovsky conducting his own music. For Adams, however, the choice is less obvious:
"I often feel really considerable internal dissonance when I have to stop being a composer and jump on a plane and transform myself into a public person, a conductor who can relate comfortably to a stage full of 100 musicians and a hall full of several thousand people. But in the end it's a good experience...It's a psychologically healthy thing to do, moving back and forth from creative work to performing. I think each activity nourishes the other."
For those unfamiliar with John Adams or his music: he was born in New Hampshire in 1947 and studied composition at Harvard, steeped in the Serialism that was the dominant compositional style of the 60's. In reaction to what he regarded as an oppressive academic orthodoxy, he fled to California in 1971, landing at Berkeley, where he has lived ever since. There, he encountered the minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and combined many of their techniques with the Romantic idioms of harmony and rhythm.
In the 80's, he began to focus on orchestral music, developing an accessible, dynamic sound which he refers to as, "massed sonorities riding on great rippling waves of energy." His music continued to evolve through the 90's and into this decade, resulting in such modern masterpieces as Harmonium and Harmonielehre, the Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls, and the operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, which will receive it's Met Opera debut in 2008.
The Wound-Dresser, from 1988, sets the Walt Whitman poem about his experiences as a nurse in a Civil War military hospital. The images of amputees and open wounds were graphic and disturbing, and the parallels to the current conflict in Iraq - not to mention the controversy surrounding Walter Reade Army Medical Center - were impossible to ignore. Eric Owens, the bass-baritone who sang the role of Gen. Wesley Groves in the world premiere performance of Doctor Atomic, was a majestic presence onstage.
After intermission, Adams was awarded the American Composers Orchestra's Distinguished Composer Award, and in his acceptance speech, he thanked Carnegie Hall for giving him the opportunity to be composer-in-residence, and predicted a bright future under the leadership of Executive Director Clive Gillinson, who has already spearheaded new education and outreach initiatives, similar to those he initiated as director of the London Symphony Orchestra.
The concert ended with the Violin Concerto (1993), performed by the 29-year old Canadian Leila Josefowicz. Adams says this work marked a transition for him, forcing him to write melody - or "hypermelody", as he calls it - which is absent from most of his earlier music. It does, however, share with those works the gradual build to a dramatic finale - in this case, the Toccare, which sends the violinist into a rapturous, non-stop explosion of sound. Josefowicz, who recorded this concerto in 2002 with Adams and the BBC Orchestra, seemed completely taken over by it, playing with fiery passion. When the music finally ended, Adams embraced Josefowicz like a proud papa, and the crowd leapt to it's feet in ecstatic applause. Adams is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser, saving his best for last.
I'll close with a quote from Alex Ross' excellent 2001 profile The Harmonist from The New Yorker:
"The music of John Adams, unlike so much classical composition of the last fifty years, has the immediate power to enchant... If you had to sum up his music in a single metaphor, you might say that it sounds like California's Highway 1. It is a cut-up paradise, a sequence of familiar elements arranged in unfamiliar ways. His music, in spite of its discontinuities, has a unifying hum, as if riding on fresh asphalt."