Composer, conductor, and creative thinker - John Adams occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. Over the past 25 years, Adams’s music has played a decisive role in turning the tide of contemporary musical aesthetics away from academic modernism and toward a more expansive, expressive language, entirely characteristic of his New World surroundings.
Born and raised in New England, Adams learned the clarinet from his father and played in marching bands and community orchestras during his formative years. He began composing at age ten and heard his first orchestral pieces performed while still a teenager. The intellectual and artistic traditions of New England, including his studies at Harvard University and attendance at Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, helped shape him as an artist and thinker. After earning two degrees from Harvard, he moved to Northern California in 1971 and has since lived in the San Francisco Bay area.
Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years before becoming composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony (1982-85), and creator of the orchestra’s highly successful and controversial “New and Unusual Music” series. Many of Adams’s landmark orchestral works were written for and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, including Harmonium (1981), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonielehre (1985), My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) and Absolute Jest (2012).
Elinore Adams, with the Russ Cole Band in the 1930s
In 1985, Adams began a collaboration with the poet Alice Goodman and stage director Peter Sellars that resulted in two groundbreaking operas: Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). Produced worldwide, these works are among the most performed operas of the last two decades. Five further stage collaborations with Sellars followed: the 1995 “songplay,” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, with a libretto by June Jordan; El Niño (2000), a multilingual retelling of the nativity story; Doctor Atomic (2005), about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the first atomic bomb; A Flowering Tree, inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute and premiered in Vienna in 2006; and the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), written for Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Other signal Adams works that have become repertory with orchestras, choruses and ensembles include Shaker Loops for strings, The Dharma at Big Sur (a concerto for electric violin inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac), Doctor Atomic Symphony (a 22-minute symphony drawn from the opera), Violin Concerto, Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony (choreographed as Joyride by Mark Morris). His new Saxophone Concerto written for Tim McAllister will receive its world premiere in the fall of 2013.
Carl Adams, with Ed Murphy and his Orchestra in the 1930s
Adams has received honorary doctorates from Yale and Harvard, from Cambridge University in England, from Northwestern University and from the Juilliard School. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California honored him with the Governor’s Award for his distinguished service to the arts in his adopted home state. His Violin Concerto won the 1993 Grawemeyer Award. “On the Transmigration of Souls,” commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
John Adams is a much sought-after conductor, appearing with the world’s major orchestras in programs combining his own works with a wide variety of repertoire ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to Ives, Carter, Zappa, Glass and Ellington. He has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Symphony and the BBC Symphony, among others. In the coming season he tours Australia with concerts in Melbourne and Sydney and conducts the Toronto Symphony, Houston Symphony and presides over a two week festival of his music in Madrid, Spain. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he holds the title of Creative Chair, he will conduct his "Naive and Sentimental Music" and the world premiere of Terry Riley's new Organ Concerto as part of that orchestra's Minimalist Jukebox festival, of which he is also curator.
Adams' recordings have won numerous Grammy awards, including three for the Nonesuch release of "On the Transmigration of Souls." Last season's release of "Harmonielehre" with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony won the Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. Other new releases include the Nonesuch DVD of the Metropolitan Opera's "Nixon in China," conducted by the composer, and "Fellow Traveler: The Complete String Quartet Music of John Adams" by the Attacca Quartet.
Luca Guardagnino's 2099 film "I Am Love," produced by and starring Tilda Swinton, uses John Adams' music from start to finish.
Adams’ educational activities reach from the local (the John Adams Young Composers program in his hometown of Berkeley, California) to the international (directing the Juilliard and Royal Academy of Music orchestras at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and the BBC Proms).
John Adams is also a highly esteemed and provocative writer. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and has written for The New Yorker and The London Times. Hallelujah Junction, Adams’s much praised volume of memoirs and commentary on American musical life, won the Northern California Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was named one of the “most notable books of the year” by The New York Times. He maintains a controversial blog about music and culture, “Hellmouth,” which can be found at his website www.earbox.com.