Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Celebrating John Adams at the San Francisco Symphony

The great living composer John Adams (above left) was just given a mini-festival over the last two weeks at the San Francisco Symphony before Christmas music officially took over for the rest of December. Adams himself conducted his 2000 oratorio, "El Niño", and the next week Michael Tilson Thomas (above right) and the orchestra gave four knockout performances of the 1985 "Harmonielehre."

On the final Sunday afternoon, there was a chamber music concert that was all-Adams, which was delightful and reassuring. Adams used to premiere just about all his orchestral works with the San Francisco Symphony, but lately most of his commissions have come from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, such as "Naive and Sentimental Music," "City Noir" and "Dharma at Big Sur." Some of his Bay Area fans were feeling a bit like neglected hometown yokels, so this two-week celebration was more than welcome.

Earlier this month, my friend Janos Gereben sent out a request to a wide range of people for favorite Christmas music, which he could publish as a recurring feature for the San Francisco Examiner. My response was on the order of "I hate Christmas music and your newspaper," but it was the catalyst for asking people at Davies Hall over the course of two weeks about some of my favorite music. The question was, "What are your three favorite John Adams pieces?"

In no particular order, here are the responses I received from music writers, performers, and random audience members who were Adams fans. About 20% of the strangers I approached were familiar enough with Adams' music to reply with some thought, and there was one hapless young man who said, "I love his Olympic Ode, and of course all those soundtracks for 'Star Wars,'" and I felt like an insufferable pedant telling him that he meant John Williams, not John Adams.

Richard Scheinin: Harmonielehre, A Flowering Tree, Dharma at Big Sur
Peter Olmer: The Transmigration of Souls, El Nino, Harmonium
Adam: Shaker Loops, Fearful Symmetries, Harmonielehre
Norman Larson: Nixon in China, Harmonium, and none of his later stuff which Norman told Adams to his face one time, and the reply was "You'll come around eventually"
Katie Hackett: City Noir, Harmonielehre, Dharma at Big Sur
Alan Ulrich: Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, El Nino, Grand Pianola Music ("because he brought some humor back into music when we really needed it")
Horacio Rodriguez: Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic
Axel Feldheim: Nixon in China, The Chairman Dances, John's Book of Alleged Dances
Robin Sutherland: Harmonielehre, Harmonium, Hallelujah Junction (which Mr. Sutherland played on Sunday afternoon)
Fred Martin: Harmonielehre, El Nino, Slonimsky's Earbox
Jack Comerford: String Quartet (2008), Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China
Howard Rubin: Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic, Gnarly Buttons
Gene Nakajima: Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer
William Weber: Grand Pianola Music, Christian Zeal and Activity, Nixon in China
Patrick Vaz: Nixon in China, A Flowering Tree, Phrygian Gates
Janos Gereben: Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer/1st Act of Doctor Atomic, Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops
Jeff Dunn: Harmonielehre, The Wound Dresser, I Was Looking at The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky
Cedric Westphal: Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, Violin Concerto
Michael Strickland: Nixon in China, El Nino, and a rotating autoplay of his "California" compositions such as El Dorado, Dharma at Big Sur, Hoodoo Zephyr, John's Book of Alleged Dances

The chamber music program on Sunday was a mixed bag, including "Road Movies" for violin and piano (Yun Chu, violin and Keisuke Nakagoshi, piano, right to left above) and the seminal "Shaker Loops" in its septet version conducted by Adams himself. This was followed by "Hallelujah Junction" for two pianos which was exuberantly performed by Robin Sutherland and Nakagoshi.

The final work was Adams' 2008 string quartet performed by the group for whom it was written, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (above). It was way too dense to absorb on a first hearing, but I look forward to getting to know the music. Maybe it will end up on a Top Three Adams Favorites list.


Jeff Dunn said...

And what are YOUR three favorites?

Civic Center said...

Michael Strickland at the end of the list is yours truly.

Unknown said...

I'm with Scheinin: Harmonielehre, A Flowering Tree, Dharma at Big Sur. About a dozen others in 4th-10th place.