ONE OF MY COLLEGE composition professors asserted, with frustration, that the last piece to join what conventional wisdom called the "standard repertory" was Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943. Heatedly we students argued alternatives: Shostakovich's 10th? Something by Bernstein (the ubiquitous Candide overture)? Sure, there were operas—Barber's Vanessa, Floyd's Susannah, Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites—but if we restricted the discussion to purely orchestral, nontheatrical music, the canonical wall erected in 1943 seemed near insurmountable.
Benaroya Hall, Thursday, February 24
Obviously, "joining the repertory" takes time: A piece needs to generate sustained interest to earn such an honor. But since that college bull session, enough time has passed, it seems, to enshrine John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine in the canon. Boosey & Hawkes, Adams' publisher, reports that by conservative estimate over 250 orchestras have played the four-minute concert-opener and that Adams is the most frequently performed living composer, a title confirmed by the American Symphony Orchestra League.
That's no thanks to Seattle ensembles. Short Ride, in an Auburn Symphony performance, is the only work of Adams' I can remember hearing locally in the last five seasons. The Cascade Symphony will give Short Ride again on its all-American season on March 5 and 6, and the Seattle Symphony will play Adams' Chamber Symphony on their "Music of Our Time" concert next Thursday. Add pianist Ursula Oppens' performance of his Phrygian Gates on her February 2 recital at Meany Hall, and it's practically an Adams festival these days. (The SSO, by the way, has scheduled his Violin Concerto for April 2001.)
Adams' music is usually labeled "minimalist," a term thrown far too often and too lazily at any music with a strong pulse, any music with predominantly consonant harmonies, any music where the same note is heard twice in a row. Adams and Philip Glass suffered a similar crisis of faith; both products of East Coast conservatories, they rebelled against the academic aesthetic that held complexity, abstraction, and ultrarationalization not just as ideals but as enforced doctrine. Glass, inspired by Indian music, experimented with rhythmic repetitions and patterning; his music, full of trademark (and easily parodied) broken chords, ripples with a cool, hard surface that's—well, like glass.
Adams' music is about breadth. John Cage was his guru, and Cage's reverence for nature, for "letting sounds be themselves," is reflected in Adams' sweeping orchestral canvases. Pieces like Common Tones in Simple Time or Harmonielehre evoke landscapes, soaring or floating over unchanging terrain that gently buzzes with life on the surface, occasionally broken by powerful, elemental upheavals. He's a magnificent orchestrator. His favored use of high, sparkling sounds—triangle, bells, celesta—stands out; he captures glints of light on the surface of his orchestra as masterfully as Monet captured them in paint.
IN CONTRAST TO this is Adams' irreverent face: less austere works written for smaller ensembles, like John's Book of Alleged Dances for the Kronos Quartet, or the Chamber Symphony. The 22-minute piece has been played by 50 ensembles, Boosey & Hawkes reports, since it was written in 1993. It was inspired by the two Schoenberg pieces of the same name and by cartoon music—both, in Adams' words, "hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic." The Chamber Symphony opens with a clank and a woodwind scream, and moves immediately into a sort of Black-Cat-Orchestra, twisted-Klezmer sound. The steady woodblock that propels Short Ride makes a reappearance among the clatter. The second movement is underpinned by the "walking bass" beloved of 18th-century baroque and 20th-century jazz; plaintive brass lines wander over this, and other instruments pipe up with rude comments, including a burbling synthesizer sounding like something between a calliope and a '60s rock organ. The finale, "Roadrunner," is a nonstop romp that includes a long scampering violin cadenza and a whirlwind finish.
Critical recognition has come sporadically to Adams; the Violin Concerto won the six-figure Grawemeyer Award in 1993, but last year's epic Naive and Sentimental Music was passed over for a Pulitzer despite gushing reviews. His three operas have their detractors: the two "CNN operas," Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and especially the pop musical I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, are hampered, many feel, by unmemorable music and preachy books.
Probably no other composer and record label have had as long (since 1986) and close an association as Adams and Nonesuch, not since Columbia Records' midcentury devotion to Stravinsky's music. Last October, Nonesuch released a 10-CD set of his music, the John Adams Earbox, comprising most of his recordings (one disc each of excerpts from the three operas). This 23-year overview shows both Adams' steady development as an orchestral composer and his willingness to branch out and try new things. Adams, who turned 53 on February 15, has reached any composer's ultimate goal: the ability to write whatever he likes and get it performed and recorded, with a fan base that eagerly follows his career rather than demanding the same old groove.