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Three Musical Giants

John Adams

 (Photo by Margaretta Mitchell)

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Composer John Adams turns 70 on February 15, but Juilliard is celebrating his birthday all year long. Faculty member Jeffrey Milarsky (BM '88, MM '90, percussion) kicked off the festivities in October when he conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony; he'll lead the AXIOM ensemble in Grand Pianola Music on February 23. And on March 28, Adams will take part in a special program at Juilliard called In Context that will feature discussion about and performances of his own music and works (by Beethoven, Ives, and Ellington) that he's said have influenced him.

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It's a busy year for Adams. This season he's the composer in residence (and also conducting) with the Berlin Philharmonic, and his opera Girls of the Golden West will premiere at San Francisco Opera in November. Adams's pieces Shaker Loops (1978) and The Chairman Dances (1985) are among the most frequently performed pieces of contemporary music and his historical operas Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), and Doctor Atomic (2005) have been established as canonical.

Grand Pianola Music (1982), which was last performed at Juilliard in 2012, is programmed much less frequently. It was inspired by a dream Adams had in which two black stretch limousines grew into giant Steinway pianos as they passed him on the freeway, exchanging B-flat and E-flat Major arpeggios. The three-movement, 30-minute work invokes the slow-changing harmonies and regular rhythmic pulse associated with minimalism while a trio of female voices (“Sirens,” per Adams's note in the score) sings a part without words accompanied by a mixed wind and brass ensemble. In 2004, critic Alan Rich noted in LA Weekly that the work's premiere in San Francisco was met by “a roof-raising chorus of cheers” but, a year later in New York, by “an equal volume of boos.” Adams wrote in his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, “so uncertain was I of the piece's value that I nearly destroyed it,” but that he ultimately found pride in its originality and inspiration. “It is my truant child,” he wrote. “When I look back on it, I am struck not so much by its outrageousness (which in fact is nowhere near outrageous enough), but rather by the fact I'd managed to find musical invention in such anecdotal musical material.”

Also on the program for the AXIOM concert is Pierre Boulez's Dérive 1 (1984), which was written for six instruments—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and vibraphone—though the piano is the main attraction. As the title suggests, it is derived from one of his earlier compositions, Répons, also for six instruments, in which Boulez (faculty 1972–75) pays tribute to Swiss conductor Paul Sacher by using the set of six pitches that represent his last name. The overall structure of the piece is simple, consisting of easy-to-distinguish A and B sections in 4/4 time. At the heart of the contrast between the two sections are the ideas of “smooth,” or amorphous, and “striated” time, to borrow terms coined by Boulez. The A section consists of tall chords so highly embellished as to almost obscure the beat (dérive can also be translated as “drift”), while in the B section a much more clearly articulated pulse prevails.

In programming Boulez and Adams together, Milarsky invites the audience to a visceral experience of these composers who were “often diametrically opposed in terms of compositional ideology,” he told The Journal. “But each has an obvious and powerful voice, and each expresses a focused range of colors and dramatic form.”

The “sonic glue,” in Milarsky's words, which binds Boulez and Adams in the AXIOM concert is Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen's 2008 Schnee (“snow”), a series of 10 canons for nine instruments. AXIOM will perform the first two—1a and 1b. “I programmed these three musical giants together as a sort of overview on how contrasting music can be, while presenting a fascinating listening experience,” Milarsky said. Abrahamsen has written that the work emerged from some ensemble arrangements he had written in the early 1990s of J.S. Bach's canons “with the intention of the music being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music.” Schnee develops “with an almost hypnotizing sense of time and timbre,” Milarsky added, evoking the amorphous meter Boulez toyed with. Canon 1a is for just three strings and piano, opening very quietly with a repeated figure high in the strings and a spare melody Abrahamsen likens to falling snow. Canon 1b, for the entire ensemble, instructs the percussionist to rub sheets of writing paper on a surface to produce a “subtle, but still clearly audible whisper-/whiskerlike sound,” Abrahamsen wrote.

In addition to the Juilliard Orchestra concert and In Context program, the Adams season continues this spring when Alan Gilbert (Pre-College '85; MM '94, orchestral conducting), director of orchestral studies, will conduct the New York Philharmonic on March 9 through 11 in an all-Adams program. The lineup for the evening will include Absolute Jest and Harmonielehre and will feature the debut of the new New York Philharmonic string quartet, which includes faculty members Frank Huang and Sheryl Staples (violins), and Cynthia Phelps (viola) as well as cellist Carter Brey.

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