One of America’s most celebrated and distinctive composers, Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams, will return to Juilliard this month for the first time since his acclaimed conducting of his opera The Death of Klinghoffer at the 2009 Focus! festival. On February 18, he will take the podium to lead the Juilliard Orchestra in a program which includes his recent work City Noir, Bartok’s Dance Suite, and the perennial Richard Strauss favorite, Don Juan.
Though born and educated in New England, Adams has long made his home on and forged a creative association with the West Coast. City Noir, composed in 2009 for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a celebration of that identity. The 35-minute work, which is cinematic in scope and gesture, teems with the slightly dark colors and characters of a unique urban culture. In a recent conversation withThe Journal, Adams referred to it as “a jazz-inflected symphonic score [that] will be good for the Juilliard students to get their teeth into.”
An increasingly familiar figure on the podium, Adams has conducted some of the world’s great orchestras. The experience of leading one’s own work, he reported, can be quite curious. “There’s a point at which I am barely even conscious that it’s my music,” he said. “I’m just there to do as good a job with it as if it were the Bartok or Strauss.” Adams admitted, though, that his personas as composer and conductor inform one another. “I don’t know how a great conductor approaches the analysis of a score, or whether it’s any different from the way I do, [but] I see problems and solutions, and in some cases bad solutions, and I can see them because I’ve been there myself as a composer.”
Adams said he is looking forward to the concert. “Each of the pieces involves extraordinary virtuosity in different ways,” he said. “The Strauss is a perfect piece from start to finish ... and it’s very fun to play. The Bartok is a very unfamiliar piece. It’s extremely difficult in the rhythmic sense. The orchestra is required to change tempi and stop on a dime, and that is something that ... young players need to develop a technique at.”
Adams was in rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera debut (on February 2) of his iconic 1987 opera Nixon in China, which is based on the former president’s historic 1972 visit. Not having conducted the opera its entirety since 1993, Adams said the rehearsal process had been full of “all kinds of emotions and surprises. Sometimes I’m amazed that I did something as good as I did and other times I look at something and wish I’d done it a little better.”
Adams, who turns 64 just three days before the concert, said he feels full of energy, invention, and an unquenchable commitment to his art. “I can’t imagine a life not being creative. Fish swim, frogs jump, dogs bark, and composers write music.”