John Adams is both composer and conductor in the Seattle Symphony’s comeback engagement


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Seattle Symphony audiences have another reason to be proud of their band.

Along with the increase in international recognition in recent years – the prestigious British magazine Gramophone named them Orchestra of the Year in 2018 – these musicians have forged permanent links with one of the most revered figures in the field. Composer and conductor John Adams returns Jan. 6-8 to conduct what he considers “an excellent orchestra” in a program dedicated to his music.

“I’ve always had a great atmosphere with them,” Adams said in a telephone interview from his home in Berkeley, Calif. This engagement marks his fourth tour with the Seattle Symphony since his podium debut here in 2004. As a conductor, he typically mixes something from the familiar repertoire with his own work, so the decision to embark on a program entirely Adams represents yet another vote of confidence in the ability of the orchestra.

“Seattle Symphony has been very fortunate to have worked with John Adams on several occasions, always with excellent reviews,” observes Elena Dubinets, artistic director of the London Philharmonic, who worked with Adams during her long tenure as a planner. artistic performance with Seattle Symphony. “It was a treat for the musicians to be able to study his own music under his direction. Imagine if they could work on Beethoven’s symphonies under this composer’s baton.

Adams turns 75 in February and is working hard on his latest opera, a treatment of Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” on his own libretto. Yet he also takes the time to lead, mentor and serve as a deeply engaged musical citizen.

Just because Adams has been ranked among the Most Performed Living Composers for some time, doesn’t mean his music is easy to play. Far from there. In order for a piece to unleash the uplifting effect of becoming ‘full of Adams’, musicians must master a language of powerful harmonic power, dazzling instrumental colors, and incisive and intricate rhythmic patterns – all while making it so natural and grounded. that rock or blues.

This is all the more the case in a program which, as Adams says, presents his music in its most “extrovert” aspect, starting with the brief and invigorating “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” that he has. written in 1986 in concert form. opening fanfare.

In his orchestral music and operas, Adams has developed an instantly recognizable style that continues to influence a new generation of composers – a style that mixes excitement, pathos and joker humor in unexpected allies. Yet he is a “project specific” composer who constantly adapts and reinvents his language to suit the context of a particular piece.

You can see this malleability at work even when Adams adopted formats as old as symphony and concerto. His Seattle Symphony program includes one-of-a-kind approaches to these ideas.

“City Noir” is a symphonic meditation on what he calls “the dark and eerie chiaroscuro” of Hollywood noir films and the anxious energy of post-war Los Angeles. Adams likens his approach to “a long traveling shot” – like the one with which Orson Welles’ 1958 film “Touch of Evil” famously opens.

Written for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, “City Noir” features an important part for alto saxophone (Timothy McAllister will be the soloist) and boasts “the surprisingly small tradition of symphony orchestral pieces rooted in a largely jazz sensibility, “Adams says.” It’s in my DNA, my parents both being jazz enthusiasts and growing up listening to all this great big band music, especially Duke Ellington. “

Adams experiments with a variety of other American vernaculars in “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” », His third piano concerto. Taking its title from a saying attributed to Martin Luther, the concerto deconstructs and brings together the impulses of funk, gospel and barilhouse. The score includes instructions such as “Twitchy, botlike”.

“One of John’s great skills is to start with something fairly fixed, and as he turns and changes the music starts to acquire an irresistible sweep,” according to pianist Jeremy Denk. – even a Seattle favorite. Denk will appear as a soloist in “Devil,” also originally written for the LA Phil. “There is a kaleidoscopic quality to hearing the harmonies change – the joy of seeing certain pitches enter into the texture and then leave and be replaced by others – and an ecstasy to the rhythm. “

Denk takes on “Devil,” which is making its local premiere, for the first time in Seattle, but has performed several times under Adams’ baton. Many of the difficulties with the score, he notes, involve “rhythm and focus.” And because of the way it’s written, you are part of this vast engine of the orchestra and have to define your own identity without shaking the whole machine.

Adams first wrote “Devil” for pianist Yuja Wang and Dudamel, and began directing it himself on a European tour with Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson in 2020 – just before the world of performing arts collapsed. be closed by the pandemic. Each pianist has brought a distinct personality to the concerto, and this collaboration with Denk – Adams calls him “one of the most thoughtful pianists” – is likely to reveal even more sides. Having three pianists who mark your music, says Adams, “is a real luxury.”

John Adams’ music

A program entirely devoted to John Adams conducted by the composer, including his recent piano concerto “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” “With Jeremy Denk,” City Noir “with saxophonist Timothy McAllister and” Short Ride in a Fast Machine “.

7:30 p.m. January 6, 8 p.m. January 8; Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $ 24 to $ 134; 206-215-4747; more information, including COVID-19 requirements, at seattlesymphony.org

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