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John Adams: The Reluctant Symphonist

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After a lengthy preoccupation with music theater and chamber music, composer John Adams appears to be reclaiming his roots as an orchestral composer, turning out big symphonic works that are full of color, lyricism, and Romantic intensity. At once restless, energetic and sensuously lyrical, his music speaks to both the head and heart.

While his orchestral works may be at the heart of concerts this season at the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, Adams is not the most obvious representative for the American orchestra, but a reluctant symphonist at best. In fact, Adams has long been outspoken in pronouncing the demise of the symphonic tradition, claiming on several occasions that it has pretty much come and gone, not unlike such extinct art forms as the Elizabethan drama or Italian madrigal.

Adams has also lamented the fact that the big commissions often come from conservative institutions with limited flexibility or adaptability, stating in a 1997 interview: "I think that may well be the wave of the future. I still write for orchestra from time to time because, unlike most other American composers, I really did grow up with it in my genes, and I know its inner workings intimately. The only chagrin I have is that the big commissions come from such conservative institutions, and one always has to write with the knowledge that, even under the best circumstance, you will never be given more than four or five hours of rehearsal time." Perhaps as a result, many of Adams's more recent works began as his own conception and only later did he go out in search of an organization to supply funding.

Critics have observed that Adams's orchestral works exhibit a certain irony based on self-consciousness, negotiating a balance between the past and the future. Just listen to his Chamber Symphony, which alludes to Schoenberg's landmark work of the same title yet also pokes fun at it with funky, serpentine bass lines. Or consider his Violin Concerto, a work from 1993 filled with spooky overtones, as the violin threads its way through the three movements, eschewing the usual series of contrasts found in the traditional concerto model.

Still, whatever Adams's ambivalence towards the orchestral tradition, his recent efforts in the genre, particularly Guide to Strange Places (2001) and Naïve and Sentimental Music (1999), his most extended and ambitious orchestral work to date, have been widely praised as some of his best and most vibrant and magnificent achievements. And in El Niño (2000), he showed his willingness to cut right across conventional genres altogether. With On the Transmigration of Souls, which the New York Philharmonic premieres this month, Adams may be revealed as a supremely confident symphonic master. Funny to remember that he once described himself as an opera composer who wrote for orchestra in order to fill up his spare time.