Photo by Betty Freeman

The office of composer laureate does not yet exist here; if it did, John Adams would be the hands-down choice for occupant. In the quarter-century since his works reached their first thunderstruck, cheering audiences, he has found within his soul the appropriate music for a swath of American history that includes Richard Nixon’s visit to China, San Francisco’s Loma Prieta earthquake, the hijacking of a cruise ship by Islamic terrorists, the impact of 9/11 on the streets of New York, and the poetic mystique of California itself. On the Transmigration of Souls, the work for voices and orchestra reflecting the 9/11 tragedy, commissioned and first performed by the New York Philharmonic, went on to win this year’s Pulitzer Prize; it gets its first local hearing on October 19 at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall, by the Pacific Symphony and Chorale under John Alexander. That poetic obsession with the Californian essence forms the substance of The Dharma at Big Sur, first to be heard here on October 24 in one of the three “gala” events celebrating the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“I had no intention of writing a piece about 9/11,” says Adams on the phone from his Berkeley home, in a one-day break between preparing the California performances and leading the inaugural performances at Carnegie Hall’s new Zankel Hall, where he seems to have left no room for his own music on the all-American concert he will conduct. “But then the New York Philharmonic called with the offer of a commission, and that was like a command performance. For my generation — and for generations before — growing up with music meant growing up with the Philharmonic: the concert broadcasts on Sunday afternoons, and the educational programs with Leonard Bernstein; this was a totemic orchestra. After 9/11 some people gave blood, some people wrote books; everybody was moved to do whatever possible, and writing music was, for me, the obvious possibility.”

Both new works, as it happens, are substantial examples of what Adams refers to as his “public” pieces. “You’ve known me for now, what, 25 years; you know that basically I’m a very private person, the outgrowth of my Yankee upbringing. Lately I’ve had to reconcile that attitude with the demand for public works; without blowing my own horn, I like to link myself with Frank Gehry. Large pieces — operas, orchestra works, concert halls — need to preserve the personality of the maker while pleasing the outside world, and it’s not always easy.”

Maybe not, but you have to admire Adams for trying, and succeeding in so many ways. Transmigration feeds on the horror of the 9/11 attack, not as a Straussian tone poem, but from the inside. Its words — for chorus, children’s chorus and tapes of people directly affected by the violence — form an emotional core. Voices call out the names of the missing; the sirens mingle with other city noises, and with the large orchestra that seems to vibrate as a horrified eyewitness. “We love you, Chick,” intones a boy’s voice out of the murk. “I loved him from the start,” echoes the children’s chorus, in the words of a bereaved lover. At the end, the chorus calls out a litany of names of the missing: “Juan Garcia . . . Michael Taldonio . . . my mother,” and the music dissolves into a pianissimo “I love you” and mingles with the dust of that awful day.

Dharma is, of course, happier stuff; take it as the latest step in the growing love affair between Adams and California, an affair that began in 1971, when his parents — both musicians of sorts — presented him with a copy of John Cage’s Silence upon his graduation from Harvard. “That owner’s manual of the alternate arts became for me a summons to abandon the Ivy League and move west,” he says. “Thirty years later, I can still remember that primordial moment, my first viewing of the Pacific Ocean. My own memory resounds with the writings of the others, from Fra Junipero Serra to John Muir to Robinson Jeffers to Jack Kerouac. It resounds in the music of Lou Harrison, who looked out across the Pacific and found other echoes on the far shore.” (Harrison’s Concerto in Slendro, his radiantly beautiful music inspired by Indonesian scales and rhythms, figured in Adams’ inaugural concert at New York’s Zankel Hall. It’s high time the East Coast learned more about the much-neglected Harrison and his westward glance.)

“I planned Dharma as a piece about ambiance,” says Adams, “and then in addition it became a violin concerto. That happened when I discovered the phenomenal Tracy Silverman, who will play the solo part on his six-string electric violin. One important aspect of the ‘Californian’ quality is my use of unusual tuning systems, especially that much-misunderstood system known as ‘just intonation.’ Lou Harrison was a strong proponent of unusual tunings, because they brought us closer to a universal harmony. Dharma uses a big orchestra, plus all kinds of electronic devices, plus Tracy; it runs nearly half an hour.”


Within the time frame of the two Adams premieres in Southern California, his kinky orchestra piece called Lollapalooza will delight audiences at two hearings in Barcelona, audiences at the Prague National Theater will hear two performances of his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, and Leila Josefowicz will unleash her phenomenal energies on the Violin Concerto with the Toledo (Ohio, this time) Symphony. Most remarkable among these events is the resurgence of Klinghoffer after its troubled American premiere in 1991 and a history of summary rejections in the intervening years. The Los Angeles Opera, one of the work’s co-commissioners, reneged on its announced performance, and the Boston Symphony canceled a scheduled performance of excerpts that would have taken place a few weeks after 9/11. The problem has never been Adams’ score, which remains one of his most emotionally loaded works, but rather the Alice Goodman text, in which members of an Islamic terrorist cell, now in command of the hijacked cruise ship Achille Lauro, sing of their hatreds toward the outside world. “America is one big Jew” did not go over well in 1991; it has taken a decade and more to let these words settle back into perspective and the music be recognized for its eloquence.

The tide turned. I was at the concert performance at London’s Barbican, to start a dazzling all-Adams weekend, in January 2002; it was a hot-ticket item that drew an ecstatic, mostly young crowd. At that time elsewhere in London, Adams himself was preparing a film version of the score; that has now been shown in Britain and the U.S., and is due for DVD release before the year’s end; this month’s Prague production is one further step along its road to redemption. “The subject matter is painful,” Adams freely admits. “But the best thing is that people have gone back to it.”

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky: A true laureate can even set a California earthquake to music, and this frisky bit of stage biz shook up a few viewers at its 1995 Berkeley premiere. “A few people felt that this was a comedown,” Adams remembers. “They just don’t know about my lighter side. They forget that my very first performance was next to my mother in a production of South Pacific in Concord, New Hampshire. That was me on that stage, with two other stage brats, singing ‘Dites-moi, pourquoi, la vie est belle.’

“When I first came to San Francisco,” he continues, “I did some teaching at the Conservatory, but I prefer a less formal framework. Our house in Berkeley is always full of kids — my own and other people’s. We work on projects, mostly in musical theater on the level of Ceiling/Sky, and it becomes a real workshop. The first boy you’ll hear on tape in Transmigration, singing ‘missing . . . missing,’ is one of my kids. My musical life began working with kids, and a lot of it continues that way.”

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