Review: Two OTHER Adams Highlights from 2014 (by Susan Scheid)

Dec 7, 2014

In 2014, two American composers whose name begin with "John" and end with "Adams" were surprised to find themselves in front-page headlines. John Luther Adams says he never imagined winning a Pulitzer, and John Adams says he never imagined the intensity of protests that would meet the Met's staging of his 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. (Here's All Things Considered on John Luther Adams' Pulitzer, and here's ATC on the Met protests.)

John Adams
Credit Margareta Mitchell

Whatever your opinions on the politics of Klinghoffer, few people regard it as Adams' finest artistic achievement - and, in any case, it wasn't the only 2014 Adams news, since he also had two major CD releases. One featured a work that was nominated for the 2014 Pulitzer,  The Gospel According to the Other Mary; the other just received two Grammy nominations (it is called City Noir). So how are they? Here's an assessment by Susan Scheid, a former Iowa resident who writes about music and other matters at prufrock's dilemma. (I'm happy to say she is joining Israeli musicologist Uri Golomb on our panel of reviewers; here's Uri's review for IPR of a major Bach CD.) Her opinions are, of course, her own:

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SUSAN SCHEID:

Composer John Adams has had quite a year, running the gamut from pockets of protest to thunderous acclaim. Among other things, 2014 included the release of two CDs that amply demonstrate his creative depth and range. Indispensable for anyone with an interest in Adams’s music, these CDs offer superb performances led by two of the finest interpreters of his work:

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Los Angeles Philharmonic/Los Angeles Master Chorale/Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon 479 2243

Adams has composed some of his most affecting music in response to poetic texts, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary may be the finest yet. Peter Sellars’s collage-libretto ranges from Biblical sources to such diverse writers as Rosario Castellanos, Rubén DaríoDorothy DayLouise Erdrich, Hildegard of Bingen, June Jordan, and Primo Levi. Adams’s sensitivity to these writings and their dramatic import is acute: aggressive chords propel us headlong into the nightmare of Day’s jail; we dance on the sparkling rhythms of Castellanos’s En un día de amor; we meditate in stillness as peeping frogs herald Erdrich’s spring (The Sacraments). Adams’s writing for voice and chorus is lustrous and harrowing by turns. The fine soloists, trio of countertenors, and Los Angeles Master Chorale sing with lucid eloquence, and in Russell Thomas’s searching, expressive performance, the setting of Primo Levi’s Passover earns its place among the pantheon of Adams’s greatest lyrical flights. Listen to it here:

Any remaining efforts to confine Adams to a “minimalist” or “neo-Romantic” box must now be laid to rest: Adams continues to chart his own path, and in The Gospel According to the Other Mary, he has created a work of transcendent power. [More information about The Gospel According to the Other Mary may be found here.]

John Adams: City Noir and Saxophone ConcertoSt. Louis Symphony/Timothy McAllister, alto saxophone, David Robertson, conductor (Nonesuch 541356-2)

John Adams grew up with jazz. His father played alto sax in swing bands, and the family home was well stocked with jazz LPs. City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto bear the imprint of those years. City Noir, an homage to post-war Los Angeles and film noir, evokes an LA nighttime of swank hotels cheek by jowl with crumbling stucco buildings, sidewalks empty of walkers, and sulfurous street lamps piercing the dark. Adams’s jazz-inflected orchestration includes virtuosic passages for alto saxophone and a seductive solo for trombone. Saxophonist Timothy McAllister’s extraordinary work on City Noir prompted Adams to write the Saxophone Concerto specifically for him. The concerto, an essential addition to the repertoire of orchestral pieces for solo classical saxophone, is particularly notable for McAllister’s daredevil, take-no-prisoners performance. That he’d once been a champion stunt bicycle rider came as no surprise. [More information on City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto may be found here and here ]

Here's the composer and the saxophonist talking about City Noir: