Classical Music Review: New Releases

John Adams · Earbox. The Chairman Dances; Christian Zeal and Activity; Common Tones in Simple Time; Chamber Symphony; Grand Pianola Music; The Death of Klinghoffer; El Dorado; Eros Piano; Five Songs (Ives); Fearful Symmetries; The Wound-Dresser; Gnarly Buttons; Harmonielehre; Harmonium; Hoodoo Zephyr; I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky; John's Book of Alleged Dances; Lollapalooza; Slonimsky's Earbox; Nixon in China; The Death of Klinghoffer; Violin Concerto.  See review for performers. Nonesuch Records (10 CD set).

Does Berkeley-based composer John Adams have a recognizable style, or has he merely rummaged through drawers looking for something to wear?

Nonesuch’s 10-CD retrospective, The John Adams Earbox, goes a long way towards answering that question.  Adams' relationship with the company began in 1985, and this special edition gives a pretty complete picture of his work so far.  One of the most publicized and celebrated composers of his generation (he was born in 1947), he received the biggest prize in classical music, the $150,000 Grawemeyer, in 1995 for his 1993 Violin Concerto, written at the request of San Francisco violinist Jorja Fleezanis, and recorded here by Gidon Kremer, with Kent Nagano conducting the London Symphony.  But I've always felt that Adams' less ambitious pieces were better.

"Occasional ones" – his term – like Slonimsky's Earbox (1996), with Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra, are frequently tighter and have a lot more force than solidly conventional efforts like Harmonium (1980-81) – its poems don't seem necessary to the music – in a new and not very effective recording with the composer leading the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus.  Intricate, well-crafted works like his clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons (1996), with Michael Collins as soloist, and the parodistic 1992 Chamber Symphony are almost too knowing for their own good (Adams, London Symphony).  The set also has 64 minutes of his second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-91), and 70 of his breakthough first, Nixon in China (1985-86).  Nonesuch also excerpts his curious and universally panned Broadway-style I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), with sharply characterized turns by Audra McDonald and a fine ensemble cast.

But it's the occasional pieces like Two Fanfares for Orchestra (1986, De Waart, San Francisco Symphony) and Fearful Symmetries (1988, Adams, Orchestra of St. Luke's), with its joyful parade of textures and styles, which show that Adams' eclecticism isn't such a bad thing after all.  Heard together, these works demonstrate a stedady growth in orchestral fluency but not necessarily depth.  A glaring exception is gay baritone Sanford Sylvan's extraordinarily moving performance of Walt Whitman's setting The Wound-Dresser (1989, Adams, Orchestra of St. Luke's), with its inescapable echoes of AIDS.

A 200 page book, complete with essays, accompanies the edition.

-Michael McDonagh

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