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27.9.07

John Adams John Adams John Adams

For the inaugural installment of Composers in Conversation, a new series that brings living composers to speak to audiences about their music, John Adams appeared last night at Baltimore Theater Project. In an hour-long conversation with Marin Alsop, he spoke about his admiration for Beethoven, whose seventh symphony he will conduct at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concerts next week, as well as Mahler, whose fifth symphony Marin Alsop will conduct this week.

What Adams hears in Beethoven is the same love of rhythmic drive that is so important in American music, especially jazz, and has had such an influence on his own works. The problem Adams identified in serial music by the followers of Webern is that "rhythm was atomized" and, although such music "has for some reason become very prestigious," it does not generally appeal to American audiences. In response to a later question, both Alsop and Adams admitted that they had never felt any attraction to the music of one such composer, Hans Werner Henze.

Adams and Alsop also spoke about the battle between composition and conducting in Mahler's life. Adams also travels a lot to serve as guest conductor with different orchestras, and he finds it difficult to switch gears and come back to a piece abandoned at its midpoint. After eight years of intense composition of exclusively large-scale pieces -- two operas (A Flowering Tree and Doctor Atomic), the semi-staged oratorio El Niño, and several major orchestral works -- he admits he is exhausted. Seeking to scale back and focus on smaller things to get back his energy, he is presently at work on a second chamber symphony (to be called Son of Chamber Symphony, he joked) and a new piano piece commissioned by Emanuel Ax.

The question period ended with a charming interchange with a young composer in the audience, who wanted to know if Adams has any plans to write music for children. Adams rightly identified the composers who have written the best music for children -- Bach, Schumann, Bartók, Britten -- all of whom were able to take their greatest ideas and compress them brilliantly into a format that children could play. He sardonically suggested that he could not imagine any of those challenging, serialist composers mentioned earlier being able to do that with their music. It is a telling point, and one wonders equally if Adams will be able to make minimalism relevant to child musicians.

As previewed at Ionarts, Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform Adams's Fearful Symmetries and Mahler's fifth symphony this weekend, beginning tonight at Strathmore and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore. Next week, John Adams will conduct his own My Father Knew Charles Ives and The Wound-Dresser, with baritone Sanford Sylvan, as well as Beethoven's seventh symphony (October 4 to 6).

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