Leonard Slatkin on John Adams

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

Few American composers have had worldwide recognition as acknowledged masters of their art. Even rarer are those who are still very much alive. John Adams, whose music is celebrated this weekend, is the exception. People actually turn out to hear what he is up to.

During the course of the BBC weekend with John, I will have the pleasure of leading two of the concerts. On Friday we present the UK premiere of his second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. Based on the tragedy of the Achille Lauro, the work, with a libretto by Alice Goodman, has come under some fire for its subject matter. It deals with the Palestinian hijacking of an ocean liner, and the subsequent assassination of one of the passengers.

In light of recent events in the world, some have felt that it is inappropriate to present such a work. But art has a way of transcending these dilemmas. Ultimately, those who do not wish to hear it do not have to. But there is no question that The Death of Klinghoffer represents a style of thought which has great validity in our world today. It also speaks in John’s unique language and mastery of setting text to music. We have an outstanding cast and this event should be one of the highlights of the season.

On Saturday, the second program contains three works, all of which I have conducted several times. Slonimsky’s Earbox pays homage to one of the great figures in American musical history, Nicolas Slonimsky. Century Rolls is performed by the pianist for whom it was written, Emanuel Ax, and Harmonielehre represents John in what is perhaps his most well-known large-scale work.

All these pieces require great energy and a high level of concentration from the players. John never writes things that are unplayable, but he does challenge the orchestra with lots of notes and colors.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that the soft-spoken New Englander is the same man who writes some really aggressive music. His manner is kind and his knowledge of music very broad indeed. I do not attempt to categorize his music, as some commentators do. John is always searching and refining. It is as if he is on some kind of journey that will probably never end.

For me, the measure of a great composer is one whose voice is always individual and recognizable. I can think of no work of John’s where the listener is not aware of who wrote the piece. This singularity will be put to the test over the weekend and I believe that concertgoers and radio listeners will find themselves drawn into this very special world that John has created.

If his was one of the voices that helped define music in the last quarter of the previous century, then we all can look forward to John’s continued voyage of discovery during the next quarter.

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