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Violin Concerto

About the Work

John Adams
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Quick Look Composer: John Adams
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; Jessica Lang Dance; with Leila Josefowicz, violin / From Adams to Copland May 16 - 17, 2014
© Thomas May

According to John Adams (who was born in 1947 and grew up in Charles Ives country in New England), his Violin Concerto would not have been possible without the development in his musical language that resulted from the writing of his second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. (One of the most controversial of Adams's creations, Klinghoffer will receive its belated Metropolitan Opera debut this October.) The complexities of the opera's libretto led Adams to devise a richer harmonic palette quite distinct from the "massed sonorities riding on great rippling waves of energy"-as he describes the character of his style from the 1980s, when he wrote Nixon in China.

Already in Nixon, Adams had been mixing Minimalist processes with different idioms, but these works got him pigeonholed as a "Minimalist." From Klinghoffer onward, though, the inadequacy of the label becomes even more apparent. Setting this drama to music enhanced his harmonic imagination and also triggered a fascination with melody, which had previously occupied a generally lower position on Adams's list of musical priorities. And yet, notes the composer, "a concerto without a strong melodic statement is hard to imagine." This explains why Adams was a relative latecomer to the concerto, a genre that has proved to be especially popular for a wide spectrum of contemporary composers.

The Violin Concerto is deeply rooted in melodic imagination. So much so that the soloist is active throughout the piece almost nonstop, singing and weaving lines of melody that flow in extravagant lengths. (Adams refers to this trait as "hypermelody.") Elements of the work anticipate the woozy transports of a concerto he later wrote for electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur of 2003-which the New World Symphony performed two years ago, with the composer himself conducting. In Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life-his recent, highly engrossing memoir (which I recommend to anyone interested in the role of contemporary music in our culture)-Adams remarks that several compositions across his career seem to bear family resemblances.

As is often the case in the concerto literature, it was the request of a musician within the composer's circle of friends that provided the incentive to write the Violin Concerto-a genre Adams has since explored further in Gnarly Buttons (for clarinet) and Century Rolls (for piano), as well as in The Dharma. Violinist Jorja Fleezanis, the much-admired concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, had been especially moved by his early symphonic work Harmonielehre and asked for a concerto. At the time, Fleezanis was part of the San Francisco Symphony (for which Adams wrote Harmonielehre); nearly a decade passed before the stars aligned and Adams could turn his attention to the piece.

He composed the Violin Concerto between January and November 1993. Fleezanis gave the premiere in January 1994, with the Minnesota Orchestra under Edo de Waart (also an early Adams champion from his San Francisco Symphony days). Adams later made some revisions for the London premiere, which was performed by Gidon Kremer. The composer grew up playing clarinet and, like Stravinsky, his lack of hands-on, practical performing knowledge of the violin led him to seek advice from both Fleezanis and Kremer while he was writing. "For those who have not played a violin or a cello," he writes, "the physical relation of the turned-over left wrist and grasping fingers defies logic. Intervals that ought to be simple are awkward, while gestures that seem humanly impossible turn out to be rudimentary."

The challenging work was soon taken up by numerous violinists and is one of Adams's best-known pieces. There is also a ballet version, which was choreographed by Peter Martins for New York City Ballet. The Violin Concerto earned its composer the ultra-prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1995. Adams dedicated the score to the late David Huntley, who was a vice president of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, and a champion of contemporary music.

Adams originally conceived the concerto's structure as a two-part affair-a basic dialectic between a driving opening movement and a slow movement. But the dimensions grew and Adams felt the need for an additional movement to provide further contrast. On the surface, the result is the traditional three-movement concerto pattern. Yet, as the critic Alan Rich observes so memorably (reviewing a Disney Hall performance in 2004), "I know of few other works, concerto or any other genre, in which the argument among elements is carried through so powerfully and with greater conviction among the arguing parties."

The traditional concerto face-off between soloist and ensemble in fact recedes, yielding to Adams's preoccupation with "hypermelody." The orchestra begins with a pattern of eight ascending notes. It will vary throughout the lengthy opening movement (which is almost as long as the other two combined). Tempo alterations and complex traceries woven by other solo instruments give the pattern a continually fluctuating sense of texture which unfolds, as Adams remarks, "like scenes on a long Chinese scroll." But what generates the real emotional energy of this music is the tension between this underlying pattern and the violin's quasi-improvisatory, undulating flights, ecstatic and uncaged by what Adams calls "the regularly pulsing staircase of upwardly rising figures in the orchestra." This process cycles into larger forms, twisting and curving as different timbral emphases in the orchestra are highlighted (it's surprisingly easy to imagine a choreographic scenario for such an abstract composition). Toward the end, with a crystalline preface from the flute, comes a short cadenza-in full free flight-and then a subtle shift in temperature that leads directly to the second movement.

Like the concerto as a whole, Adams reinvigorates a traditional form in this slow movement: the Baroque chaconne, in which a repeated bass sequence underlies a series of variations on top. In fact, Adams rather pointedly uses a chord progression that echoes that most famous of chaconnes, the Pachelbel Canon in D. But as the movement unfolds, Adams expands, compresses, and otherwise varies the bass, while the violin "hypermelodically" rhapsodizes above, as deliriously heedless of gravity as a high-wire artist. At times the music suggests the majesty of a Bach chorale, but its colors remix and realign like a slow-motion kaleidoscope-notice how skillfully percussion, bells, and keyboard synthesizers are woven into the texture. Adams subtitles this movement "Body through which the dream flows"-a phrase borrowed from the Bay area poet Robert Hass-and it could very well serve as a motto for the entire concerto's dualism: the orchestra being the body and the violin as representative of the floating dream.

The most traditional-seeming movement is the finale, which provides the virtuosic display we expect from a concerto. This movement is titled "Toccare" (another Baroque-flavored touch referring to fleet-fingered showmanship-as in a toccata). As a counterweight to the new melodic character so apparent in the first two movements, Adams here summons the high-energy rhythmic pulsation of such early pieces as Shaker Loops. And, looking ahead to his concerto for electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur (2003), Adams emulates something of the fluidity of non-Western styles of string playing.