Program Notes: John Adams + Timo Andres’ World Premiere

June 8, 2022

Chamber Concerto (2017)

Samuel Adams
Born December 30, 1985, in San Francisco, CA

Samuel Carl Adams is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. His inventively orchestrated and atmospheric works draw from traditional forms, noise, and digital culture. His work has been called “mesmerizing” and “music of a composer with a personal voice and keen imagination” by The New York Times, “canny and assured” by The Chicago Tribune and “wondrously alluring” by The San Francisco Chronicle.

Adams has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, New World Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, Emanuel Ax, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. In 2015, Adams was named a Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; while there, he created new works for the orchestra and co-curated the critically-acclaimed MusicNOW series. In 2019, he was named a Guggenheim Fellow. 

Adams grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where he studied composition and electroacoustic music, receiving his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University while also active as a jazz bassist in San Francisco. Prior to working in New York City between 2010 and 2014, Adams received a master’s degree in composition from The Yale School of Music. 

Chamber Concerto, written in 2017 for violinist Karen Gomyo, was premiered in May 2018 by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of MusicNOW. Adams admits he is wary of the concept of a traditional concerto, which he finds “a bit suspect.” He says, “I am not particularly drawn to lopsided musical hierarchies, and the ‘hero’ narrative found in the standard nineteenth and twentieth century romantic warhorses doesn’t seem altogether relevant in the twenty-first century.”

Adams chose the chamber concerto form, but has given it a twist. As he writes, “The result is a contemporary take on old ideas, a concerto that attempts to translate baroque formal devices into psychological archetypes, finding their meaning in the twenty-first century.” While Adams keeps the violin as a “solo” voice, it is used more as a spark or, as he puts it, a “waking voice”; the ensemble is its “collective unconscious.” 

The Chamber Concerto is an exploration of expression, primarily communicating feeling and emotion, rather than form and function. Reviewing the West Coast premiere of Adams’s Chamber Concerto, critic Charles Donelan of The Independent said that the concerto “left no doubt that this second generation of Adams composers has what it takes to move music forward. Mesmerizing, soulful, and structurally sound, the piece will enter the standard repertoire.” 

Chamber Concerto is scored for solo violin and a chamber orchestra made of two flutes (doubling piccolo and alto flute), Bb clarinet, bass clarinet doubling contrabass clarinet, two percussionists, piano, two first violins, one second violin, one viola, two cellos, and one bass. 

City Noir (2009)

John Adams
Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA 

The contemporary American composer, John Adams, spent his formative years in his native New England, where the performers and composers at the artistic and intellectual institutions there had a significant influence on him. His clarinet teacher and the conductor of the orchestra in which he played as a young musician were both members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Adams became proficient enough on his instrument to appear as the soloist in the concerto of his neighbor, composer Walter Piston, and he studied composition at Harvard with the successor to Piston’s faculty chair, Leon Kirchner. After his graduation, Adams settled in San Francisco, where he taught at the Conservatory for ten years; he founded and directed the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s series “New and Unusual Music,” and was composer-in-residence with the orchestra from 1982 to 1985. 

In the music of his early maturity, Adams showed his discovery of a freer kind of advanced musical thought than he had previously learned, taking up many of the techniques and much of the aesthetics of the “minimalist” composers. It was not long, however, before he admitted himself to be “a minimalist who is bored with minimalism” and developed the balanced mixture of sustained repetition with either subtle or bold variation that still often distinguishes his work.

Adams’s works include several of the most performed contemporary classical pieces today: Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, Chamber Symphony, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto. His most often performed stage works include Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic.  

Adams has conducted orchestras and opera companies in Europe and the United States, and served as music director of numerous festivals and as creative chair with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1988 to 1990. He has received many prizes, among them the California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the Pulitzer Prize, and Holland’s prestigious Erasmus Prize, “for contributions to European culture,” the only American composer ever chosen for this award. He has also received honorary doctorates from Harvard University, Yale University, Northwestern University, Cambridge University, and the Juilliard School. Since 2009, he has held the position of Creative Chair with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Dedicated to then Philharmonic President Deborah Borda “in celebration of a long friendship,” City Noir is the final panel in Adam’s Californian Triptych of orchestral works that “have as their theme the California experience, its landscape, and its culture.” 

The composer has written the following note about City Noir

City Noir was first suggested by my reading the so-called “Dream” books by Kevin Starr, a brilliantly imagined, multi-volume cultural and social history of California. In the “Black Dahlia” chapter of his Embattled Dreams volume, Starr chronicles the tenor and milieu of the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s as it was expressed in the sensational journalism of the era and in the dark, eerie chiaroscuro of the Hollywood films that have come to define the period sensibility for us: “. . . the underside of home-front and post-war Los Angeles stood revealed. Still, for all its shoddiness, the City of Angels possessed a certain sassy, savvy energy. It was, among other things, A Front Page kid of town where life was lived by many one the edge, and that made for good copy and good film noir.

Those images and their surrounding aura whetted my appetite for an orchestral work that, while not necessarily referring to the soundtracks of those films, might nevertheless evoke a similar mood and feeling tone of the era. I was also stimulated by the notion that there indeed exists a bona fide genre of jazz-inflected symphonic music, a fundamentally American orchestral style and tradition that goes back as far as the early 1920s (although, truth to tell, it was a Frenchman, Darius Milhaud, who was the first to realize its potential with his 1923 ballet La création du monde, a year before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in New York.)

The music of City Noir is in the form of a 30-minute symphony. The formal and expressive weight of its three movements is distributed in pockets of high energy that are nested among areas of a more leisurely – one could even say “cinematic” – lyricism. The first movement, The City and its Double, opens with a brief, powerful “wide screen” panorama that gives way to a murmuring dialog between the double bass pizzicato and the scurrying figures in the woodwinds and keyboards. The steady tick of a jazz drummer impels this tense and nervous activity forward – a late-hour empty street scene, if you like. After a broad and lyrical melodic passage in the strings, the original scorrevole movement returns, charged with increasingly insistent impulse and building up steam until it peaks with a full-throttle orchestral tutti. A surging melody in the horns and cellos punctuated by jabbing brass “bullets” brings the movement to a nearly chaotic climax before it suddenly collapses into shards and fragments, a sudden stasis that ushers in the second movement.

The title, The City and its Double, is a backward glance to the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who in his writing is said to have “opposed the vitality of the viewer’s sensual experience against [a conventional concept of] theater as a contrived literary form.” Hence my “city” can be imagined not just as a geographic place or even as a social nexus, but rather as a source of inexhaustible sensual experience. As a child watching the early days of television, I remember well the program that always ended with the familiar tag line, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one.”

As a relief to the frenzy of the first movement’s ending, The Song is for You, takes its time assembling itself. Gradually a melodic profile in the solo alto sax emerges from the surrounding pools of chromatically tinted sonorities. The melody yearns toward but keeps retreating from the archetypal “blue” note. But eventually the song finds full bloom in the voice of the solo trombone, a “talking” solo, in the manner of the great Ellington soloists Lawrence Brown and Britt Woodman (both, fittingly enough, Angelenos). The trombone music picks up motion and launches a brief passage of violent centripetal energy, all focused on a short obsessive idea first stated by the sax. Once spent of its fuel, the movement returns to the quiet opening music, ending with pensive solos by the principal horn and viola.

Boulevard Night is a study in cinematic colors. Sometimes, as in the moody Chinatown trumpet solo near the beginning, it is languorous and nocturnal; sometimes, as in the jerky stop-start coughing engine music in the staccato strings, it is animal and pulsing; and other times, as in the slinky, sinuous saxophone theme that keeps coming back, each time with an extra layer of stage makeup, it is in-your-face brash and uncouth. The music should have the slightly disorienting effect of a very crowded boulevard peopled with strange characters, like those of David Lynch film – the kind who only come out to strut their stuff very late on a hot night.”

City Noir is scored for: piccolo, three flutes (one doubling on piccolo), three oboes, English horn, four clarinets (one doubling on bass clarinet), bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, six person percussion battery, including a jazz drummer, consisting of three bass drums, three bongo drums, two castanets, two chimes, claves, conga drum, two cowbells, two crotales, three glockenspiels, twenty tuned gongs, high hat, marimba, ride cymbal, snare drum, six suspended cymbals, two tam-tams, two tambourines, two temple blocks, four timbales, two triangles, two vibraphones, xylophone, piano, celesta, two harps, and strings.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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