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John Adams

updated 26 June 2000
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John Adams
John Adams

John Adams is one of the best known and most often performed of America's composers. As Andrew Porter wrote in The New Yorker, Adams is the creator of a "flexible new language capable of producing large-scale works that are both attractive and strongly fashioned. His is a music whose highly polished resonant sound is wonderful." Le Monde says that his music "...gives the impression of a rediscovered liberty, of an open door which lets in the fresh air in great gusts."

Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on 15 February 1947. During his youth, growing up in Vermont and New Hampshire, he was strongly influenced by the intellectual and cultural institutions of New England. He received both his BA and MA degrees from Harvard University, where he was active as a conductor, clarinetist, and composer. His principal teachers included Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici, and Roger Sessions.

In 1971 Adams began an active career in the San Francisco area, teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1972-83) and serving as new music adviser and composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony (1978-85). His creative output spans a wide range of media: works for orchestra, opera, video, film, and dance, as well as electronic and instrumental music. Such pieces as Harmonium, Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, and The Chairman Dances are among the best known and most frequently performed of contemporary American music. In these works he has taken minimalism into a new and fresh terrain characterized by luminous sonorities and a powerful and dramatic approach to form.

Adams's works have been programmed by every major orchestra in the United States as well as orchestras throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia. His music has also been choreographed by numerous dance companies including Dance Theater of Harlem (Garth Fagan) and the New York City Ballet (Peter Martins). Adams's two operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) have been among the more controversial and widely seen stage events in recent history.

John Adams has become increasingly active as a conductor of his own and other 20th-century music. From 1987 to 1990 Adams served as creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducting four weeks of concerts and overseeing their new music activities. In 1993, he served as music director of the Ojai Festival. With the Ensemble Modern he led a European tour in 1993 and an American tour in 1996. He has also conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the Concertgebouw, and the London Sinfonietta. In February 1997 he led the San Francisco Symphony in performances and a recording of Harmonium. He was also the focus of the New York Philharmonic's Composer Week in the spring of 1997.

The music of John Adams has been recorded in multiple versions on the Nonesuch, EMI/Angel, Philips, ECM, Chandos, New Albion, and 1750 Arch labels. Among recent recordings are his Grand Pianola Music with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Mosko, a new release of Harmonielehre and The Chairman Dances conducted by Simon Rattle, and Harmonium conducted by Leonard Slatkin. In 1985, Harmonielehre was honored as "Best Classical Album" by both Time and USA Today. Harmonium, Grand Pianola Music, Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, Phrygian Gates, and China Gates are available in published form from Associated Music Publishers.

October 1999

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For detailed and current information about the composer, please refer to "earbox.com" -- the official web site of John Adams.

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