“The first memento mori – I’ll check my pulse”

Written by: Colin Anderson

John Adams is a habitual early-riser – “I hate to work at night”. He’ll being doing both over the weekend of January 18-20 and during the logistic-challenging days of rehearsal leading up to the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s “John’s earbox” – three days and nights of John Adams’s music in the Barbican. Not only three BBCSO concerts, with Leonard Slatkin and the composer himself conducting, there’s the London Sinfonietta, many solo singers and instrumentalists, and some late-night saxophone from Simon Haram.

“Well, it’s the most thorough self-portrait that one could hope for because it includes an example of almost everything I’ve done – chamber music, orchestral and opera. It has both of my concertos and my opus two, almost my earliest piece, Shaker Loops – it represents twenty-three years of music.”

In addition to pre-concert talks and being part of the audience, Adams will also be conducting two concerts. Is that an activity he enjoys? “Yes I do. I find it the yang to the yin of composing – a complementary side of the creative process. It takes me out of what can be a woefully hermetic state and plunges me into the real world of dealing with people and problem solving. There’s a certain ecstatic essence to being able to choreograph one’s thoughts in the air as a conductor”. Is it also a practical aid to composing? “I always have the performance in mind. If you’ve been a conductor and worked with orchestras under the ridiculously confined time-periods that a concert is put together in, you have that in mind. You find ways to work creatively, and hopefully daringly, but not unrealistically.”

Probably the most headline-making event of the weekend will be the first – a concert performance, the UK premiere, of Adams’s ten-year-old opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the hijacking of the liner ’Achille Lauro’ … it begins with a ’Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ followed by a ’Chorus of Exiled Jews’. Certainly contemporary – and absorbing and image-creating on CD – but is it even-handed in its treatment? Recently a concert of Klinghoffer choruses was cancelled by the Boston Symphony Orchestra…

“It’s so close to oratorio in its structure that I don’t think people will miss the staging. Yes, unfortunately, Klinghoffer is relevant. The Boston Symphony cancellation triggered an explosion of heated argument in the press here, the ugliest of which was in the New York Times where a musicologist wrote a long, long article essentially saying that the piece is so subversive and evil that it should be banned. The article was called ’Music’s Dangers and the Case for Control’. Particularly music because it’s so emotionally compelling. There are certain pieces, of which Klinghoffer is the prime suspect, which should simply be prevented from being performed. This particular writer went through the opera and counted up the minutes in which the Palestinians were given pretty music and what he construed as less pretty music for the Jews. If I say I’m being even-handed I put myself in a position of defending it in a way I don’t want to.

“Klinghoffer was premiered at the very end of the Gulf War – so we call it ’Bush 1’! I think people were disappointed that it wasn’t more graphic, more like a movie. Alice Goodman [Klinghoffer’s librettist] used the term ’meditation’, that the work is a meditation on these events, which I think is a very wonderful way of thinking about it. It wasn’t particularly controversial when it opened in Europe, but when it got to Brooklyn people really dug in and took sides. It wasn’t that I just wanted to write a good opera. I felt that this event, and its background, was illustrative of the most problematic and deepest crisis in human behaviour. One thing I’ve always said of the Klinghoffer event, what happened when he was murdered, that it really was a story that could have come from the Old Testament. He was a sacrificial victim who wandered into a situation of religious strife, suspicion and intolerance – and was killed. The flash-point, at least in the States, is that people have been offended because they feel we did not condemn the terrorists strongly enough; in fact, we attempted to enter the psyche of the terrorists. One terrorist, according to witnesses on the ship, was a sympathetic character who seemed caught up and doubtful. Others were real thugs; one was a young boy with the mindset of a suicide-bomber. To me, this was the stuff not only of great drama but of potential revelation to audiences.”

Adams’s interest in today’s news is not the whole industry of his creativity. “It would be really tiresome to be considered an artist who only dealt with contemporary events. Life is too rich. Eyebrows seem to be raised if an opera is written about Richard Nixon or religious strife in the Middle East. If I were a filmmaker or novelist, people would assume I would draw on topics from contemporary life – somehow, with opera, people find that strange, or cheap and opportunistic; I think that reveals that people regard opera as a dead form. If opera’s going to have any future at all as a living art-form, it really has to take hold of our lives now.”

Having opened with Klinghoffer, the weekend closes, after half-a-dozen more concerts plus films and talks, with Adams conducting the BBCSO in his Violin Concerto – “I wouldn’t want to play favourites, but I’m very fond of it given modern concertos don’t do very well” – and his latest piece, Guide to Strange Places, “almost a world premiere.”

How important is the title in a piece’s creation? “Sometimes the title generates the piece; sometimes I really struggle and cast around for a title and don’t find it until, literally, the day before the premiere. In this case the title came first. It was suggested by a guide I found in a small farmhouse in Provence a few years ago. The piece turned out to be a surprise for me. My idea was for something in the ’fantastique’ style of Berlioz or Mussorgsky, or Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I ended up conducting the premiere in Amsterdam [last September] because the conductor injured his arm the day before; I was really shocked by the fundamental essence of the piece which was far more intense than I had imagined”. Are there any new departures? “I think so even though it still has that high-energy, motoric thrust to it. I started with the idea of a certain genre, mostly from the nineteenth-century, when colours were very focussed and gestures were wildly exaggerated, like gargoyles. You don’t find that often in my music, you find power and energy. Strange Places has an almost grotesque quality in some of the musical imagery – but in a nice way!”

The weekend itself? “A tremendous honour, the first ’memento mori’ – I’ll check my pulse because this sort of thing doesn’t happen until composers are advanced in age. It could only happen in London. I’m sure I’ll be exhausted – I’ll probably just want to listen to Miles Davis for a month!”


  • The Death of Klinghoffer – Soloists, BBCSO/Leonard Slatkin – 18 January at 7pm
  • Adams conducts the London Sinfonietta at 1pm on 19th – Chamber Symphony & Grand Pianola Music
  • Harmonielehre, Century Rolls, Slonimsky’s Earbox – Emanuel Ax/BBCSO/Slatkin – 19 January at 8pm
  • John Adams/BBCSO – Violin Concerto (Leila Josefowicz), The Wound-Dresser (Christopher Maltman) and Guide to Strange Places – 20/1, 8pm, live on BBC Knowledge
  • And much more – call 020 7765 2954 for a brochure
  • All concerts broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (live or deferred)
  • Barbican Box Office: 020 7638 8891 www.barbican.org.uk
  • Related events at Guildhall School of Music & Drama 15-20 January – 020 7382 7193
  • BBC Radio 3, 14-18th 11.30am – “Towards John Adams”
  • www.earbox.com
  • “What, with my name?” – A conversation with John Adams. Click here to read

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