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Seattle Symphony audiences have another reason to be proud of their band.
Along with a boost in international recognition in recent years — the prestigious British magazine Gramophone named them Orchestra of the Year in 2018 — these musicians have forged an ongoing bond with one of the most revered figures in the field. The composer and conductor John Adams returns Jan. 6 and 8 to lead what he deems “an excellent orchestra” in a program devoted to his music.
“I’ve always had a really good vibe with them,” Adams said in a phone interview from his home in Berkeley, California. This engagement marks his fourth round with Seattle Symphony since making his podium debut here in 2004. As a conductor, he typically mixes something from the familiar repertory with his own work, so the decision to venture an all-Adams program represents still another vote of confidence in the orchestra’s ability.
“Seattle Symphony has been very lucky to have worked with John Adams on multiple occasions, always to great reviews,” observes Elena Dubinets, artistic director of the London Philharmonic, who worked with Adams during her long tenure as an artistic planner with Seattle Symphony. “It’s been a special treat to the musicians to be able to study his own music under his guidance. Imagine if they could work on Beethoven’s symphonies under that composer’s baton.”
Adams turns 75 in February and is hard at work on his latest opera — a treatment of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” set to his own libretto. Yet he also makes time to conduct, mentor and serve as a deeply committed musical citizen.
That Adams has for some time ranked among the most performed of living composers doesn’t mean his music is easy to play. Far from it. For a piece to unleash the exhilarating effect of going “full Adams,” the musicians need to command a language of powerful harmonic drive, dazzling instrumental colors and intricately layered, incisive rhythmic patterns — all while making it sound as natural and grounded as rock or blues.
This is all the more the case in a program that, as Adams puts it, presents his music at its most “extroverted,” starting with the brief, bracing “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” that he wrote in 1986 as a concert-opening fanfare.
In his orchestral music and in his operas, Adams has developed an immediately recognizable style that continues to influence a new generation of composers — a style that blends excitement, pathos and pranky humor into unexpected alloys. Yet he is a “project-specific” composer who constantly tailors and reinvents his language according to the context of a particular piece.
You can see that malleability at work even when Adams takes on such age-old formats as the symphony and concerto. His Seattle Symphony program includes characteristically one-of-a-kind approaches to these ideas.
“City Noir” is a symphonic meditation on what he calls “the dark, eerie chiaroscuro” of Hollywood noir films and the anxious energy of postwar Los Angeles. Adams compares his approach to “one long tracking shot” — like the one with which Orson Welles’ 1958 film “Touch of Evil” famously opens.
Written for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, “City Noir” features a prominent part for alto saxophone (Timothy McAllister will be the soloist) and stakes a claim to “the surprisingly small tradition of pieces for symphony orchestra essentially rooted in a jazz sensibility,” says Adams. “It’s in my DNA, with my parents both being jazz lovers, and having grown up listening to all this great big band music, especially Duke Ellington.”
Adams experiments with a variety of other American vernaculars in “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” his third piano concerto. Taking its title from a saying attributed to Martin Luther, the concerto deconstructs and reassembles impulses from funk, gospel and barrelhouse. The score includes instructions like “twitchy, botlike.”
“One of John’s great skills is to start off with something fairly fixed, and as it turns and changes, the music begins to acquire a sweep that’s irresistible,” according to pianist Jeremy Denk, himself a Seattle favorite. Denk will appear as the soloist in “Devil,” also originally written for the LA Phil. “There’s a kaleidoscopic quality to hearing the harmonies change — the joy of certain pitches coming into the texture and then leaving and being replaced by others — and an ecstasy to the rhythm.”
Denk is tackling “Devil,” which makes its local premiere, for the first time in Seattle but has performed on several occasions under Adams’ baton. Many of the difficulties posed by the score, he remarks, involve “rhythm and concentration. And because of the way it’s written, you’re part of this vast engine of the orchestra and have to define your own identity without throwing off the entire machine.”
Adams initially wrote “Devil” for the pianist Yuja Wang and Dudamel, and started conducting it himself on a European tour with the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson in 2020 — just before the world of live performance was shut down by the pandemic. Each pianist brought a distinctive personality to the concerto, and this collaboration with Denk — Adams calls him “one of the most thoughtful pianists” — is likely to reveal still more facets. To have three pianists leaving their mark on his music, says Adams, “is a real luxury.”