John Adams

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John Adams

733 performances.

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Past Performances

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List of Works
This list of works is taken from the records of concert details listed in our concerts section. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but serves as a useful link to recent performances of this composer's work.

John Adams Biography

John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is an American composer, with strong roots in minimalism. John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947 and graduated from Harvard University in 1971. He moved to California where he taught and conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years. His innovative concerts led to his appointment firstly as contemporary music adviser to the San Francisco Symphony, and then as the orchestra's composer-in-residence between 1979 and 1985, the period in which his reputation became established with the success of such works as Harmonium and Harmonielehre. Recordings on the New Albion and ECM labels were followed in 1986 by an exclusive contract with Nonesuch Records, an association that continues today. In 1999 Nonesuch released The John Adams Earbox, a critically-lauded 10-CD retrospective box set.

Of John Adams's compositions, the best known and most widely discussed is his opera Nixon in China, given its premiere by Houston Grand Opera in 1987 and winner of the 1989 Grammy for 'Best Contemporary Composition.' With Nixon in China, the composer, along with director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and choreographer Mark Morris, brought contemporary history vividly into the opera house, pioneering an entire genre of post-modern music theater. The original staging of the work by Sellars has subsequently been seen in New York, Washington, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Paris, Adelaide, and Frankfurt. New productions of the opera have been presented in Helsinki (in Finnish) and Bielefeld (in German), while concert performances have recently been given in London and Tallinn, Estonia.

Adams's second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, again a collaboration with Sellars, Goodman, and Morris, had its premiere at the Brussels Opera in 1991. Described by Newsweek critic Katrine Ames as 'a work that fires the heart,' it has also been seen in Lyon, Vienna, New York and San Francisco and was given its UK premiere by the BBC SO during the 2002 January Composer Weekend dedicated to Adams's music. His next stage work was a collaboration with Peter Sellars and librettist June Jordan; entitled I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, it is described by its creators as a 'song play,' scored for seven singers and an onstage band of eight instrumentalists. Ceiling/Sky, which made its debut in Berkeley in May 1995, has since been performed throughout North America and Europe. Adams' newest opera, Doctor Atomic, premiering October 2005, is also a collaboration with Sellars. The action of the opera is centered on the very first test of the atomic bomb, and is mainly about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Initially known as a Minimalist, Adams has in his mature work harnessed the rhythmic energy of Minimalism to an extraordinary harmonic pallette and fertile orchestral imagination, with the strong influence of late-Romanticism evident. Concurrently he has introduced references to a wide range of 20th-century idioms — both 'popular' and 'serious' — in works such as his operas, the wittily eclectic orchestral piece Fearful Symmetries, which touches on Stravinsky, Honegger, and big-band swing music, and the recent My Father Knew Charles Ives, which stakes out strikingly original territory.

In a similar vein, Adams's Chamber Symphony, premiered in January 1993, merges the virtuosic expressionism of Schoenberg with the manic world of cartoon soundtrack music. Scored for fifteen instruments, Chamber Symphony has met with extraordinary success: more than 40 ensembles have performed or scheduled the work. In addition, Chamber Symphony won Adams the 1994 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for best chamber composition.

Orchestral works by Adams include the two often-heard fanfares Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Tromba Lontana; his acclaimed Walt Whitman setting The Wound-Dresser; and El Dorado, a commission from the San Francisco Symphony that addresses the effects of greed on our environment and society. For his Violin Concerto, written in an unusual three-way commission between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony and the New York City Ballet, Adams was awarded the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Other honors include the California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, and the rank of Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture.

February 1999 brought the world premiere in Los Angeles of Naïve and Sentimental Music, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Vancouver Symphony, Sydney Symphony, and Ensemble Modern Orchestra. This 50-minute orchestral essay has been widely hailed as one of Adams's crowning achievements in the medium. Other orchestral pieces written during the 1990s include Slonimsky's Earbox (1996), commissioned jointly by the Hallé Orchestra and the Oregon Symphony; Gnarly Buttons (1996), a clarinet concerto given its premiere by soloist Michael Collins and the London Sinfonietta with the composer conducting; and Century Rolls, a piano concerto written for Emanuel Ax, and premiered in 1997 by Ax with the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi.

John Adams became the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Artist in Association in June 2003. In the words of Adams himself, 'the position is sufficiently unstructured and flexible to allow any number of wild things to happen.'

Adams's work On the Transmigration of Souls, a choral work commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music. In 2005, its premier recording (with Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic) won three Grammy awards: Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

On 23 November 2004, the British Academy presented a Fellowship of the Academy to John Adams at the Barbican, London, following a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by the composer and including his work Harmonium.

Adams's notable works include:

Shaker Loops
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Phrygian Gates
Nixon in China
Violin Concerto
Gnarly Buttons
El Niño
Grand Pianola Music
The Death of Klinghoffer
Naive and Sentimental Music
My Father Knew Charles Ives
John's Book of Alleged Dances
Similar contemporary composers include Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.

Not to be confused with another postminimalist composer, John Luther Adams.

Complete Works:

Stage Works

Nixon in China
Opera in Three Acts (1985-87)

The Death of Klinghoffer
Opera in Two Acts (1990-91)

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
Song Play in Two Acts (1995)

El Nino
A Nativity Oratorio (1999-2000)


Common Tones in Simple Time (1979)

For Chorus and Large Orchestra (1980-81)

Shaker Loops Version for String Orchestra (1983)

Harmonielehre (1984-85)

The Chairman Dances Foxtrot for Orchestra (1985)

Tromba Lontana
Fanfare for Orchestra (1985)

Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Fanfare for Orchestra (1986)

Fearful Symmetries (1988)

Eros Piano
For Piano and Orchestra (1989)

El Dorado (1991)

Violin Concerto (1993)

Lollapalooza (1995)

Slonimsky's Earbox (1996)

Century Rolls for Piano and Orchestra (1996)

Naive and Sentimental Music (1997-98)

Guide to Strange Places (2001)

My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003)

The Dharma at Big Sur (2003)

Voice and Orchestra

The Nixon Tapes: Three Suites for Voices and Orchestra from Nixon in China (1987)

The Wound-Dresser for Baritone Voice and Orchestra (1988)

Chamber Music

Piano Quintet (1970)

Shaker Loops for String Septet (1978)

Chamber Symphony (1992)

John's Book of Alleged Dances for String Quartet (1994)

Road Movies for Violin and Piano (1995)

Gnarly Buttons for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble (1996)

Other Ensemble Works

American Standard for Unspecified Chamber Ensemble (1973)

Christian Zeal and Activity for Unspecified Chamber Ensemble (1973)

Grounding for Six Voices, Three Saxophones and Live Electronics (1975)

Grand Pianola Music for Two pianos, Three Female Voices, Winds, Brass and Percussion(1982)

Scratchband for Amplified Ensemble (1996)


Ktaadn for Mixed Chorus, Osciallators and Filters (1974)

Harmonium for Chorus and Large Orchestra (1980-81)

Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer(1991)

On the Transmigration of Souls: In Memory of September 11, 2001 for Orchestra, Chorus, Children's Choir and Pre-recorded Soundtrack (2002)

Tape and Electronic Compositions

Heavy Metal Two-channel Tape (1970)

Studebaker Love Music Two-channel Tape (1976)

Onyx Four-channel Tape (1976)

Light Over Water Two-channel Tape (1983)

Hoodoo Zephyr (1992-93)

Piano Solo or Duet

Phrygian Gates for Piano (1977)

China Gates for Piano (1977)

Hallelujah Junction for Two Pianos (1996)

Film Score

Matter of Heart
For the documentary about C.G. Jung (1982)

An American Tapestry
For the film directed by Gregory Nava
Produced by Barbara Martinez-Jitner
Released on the Showtime Cable Channel

Arrangements and Orchestrations

The Black Gondola (Orchestration of La Lugubre Gondola by Franz Liszt) (1990)

Berceuse Elegiaque (Arrangement for Small Orchestra of Busoni's original) (1991)

Le Livre de Baudelaire Mezzo Soprano and Orchestra (Orchestration of Four Songs by Claude Debussy from Cinq poemes de Charles Baudelaire) (1993)

La Mufa (Orchestration of Tango by Astor Piazzolla) (1995)

Todo Buenos Aires (Orchestration of Tango by Astor Piazzolla) (1996)

Revolucionario (Orchestration of Tango by Astor Piazzolla) (1996)

Six Songs by Charles Ives Arranged for Voice and Chamber Orchestra (1989-93)

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Sheet music by John Adams