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Composer John Adams making old musical forms new

- - Friday, May 17, 2013

The most common stereotype of classical music is that it is a form hopelessly stuck in a past in which wealthy patrons sit silently in lavishly appointed concert halls listening to the works of composers who lived centuries ago.

John Adams has been one of the best known and most admired composers of the past several decades, and his famously minimalist yet emotionally maximalist music has served as an aggressive repudiation of this understanding of classical music. With works about subjects as varied as President Nixon's visit to China, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the testing of the first atomic bomb and a killing during the hijacking of a cruise ship, Mr. Adams' music is proof that classical music can be relevant and daring in the modern world.

The Library of Congress will wrap up its 2012-13 concert season with a special residency by Mr. Adams, who will serve as a presenter of emerging musicians and as a conductor of works by himself and others. The four performances that make up the residency will be split between the Library's Coolidge Auditorium and the Atlas Performing Arts Center from Wednesday through May 25.

The residency begins with a Wednesday concert at the library and a Thursday concert at the Atlas that will feature young performers interpreting works of Mr. Adams and other composers, including the world premiere of "Early to Rise," a piece by young composer Timothy Andres that was selected for commission by Mr. Adams.

"He's one of our most promising young composers," said Mr. Adams. "I wanted to introduce one of the younger generation of American composers I'm excited about, and Timo was one of my first choices."

One of the selections that will be performed Thursday by violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida is Mr. Adams' "Road Movies," which was commissioned by the Library of Congress and debuted at the Kennedy Center in 1995, highlighting the composer's long relationship with the library.

"I particularly love the people at the music department at the Library of Congress," said Mr. Adams. "The archives there are lovingly cared for. It's just a joy to be at the Library of Congress."

On the night of May 24, Mr. Adams will move from the audience to the Coolidge stage as he leads the International Contemporary Ensemble through Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 and his own Son of a Chamber Symphony, a piece inspired by the Schoenberg composition. The ensemble also will perform a piece by Zosha Di Castri, a young composer whom Mr. Adams identified as a significant emerging artist.

Mr. Adams expressed particular enthusiasm about performing with the International Contemporary Ensemble, whose members he commended for their devotion to their craft and passion for contemporary music.

"I've been in concerts for 40 years now, and I always find that working with young people is in many ways the most rewarding experience, because they're fresh and anxious to learn. Some of the repertoire that I do is old classics for them, because they're used to doing brand new pieces," Mr. Adams said. "I bring pieces like the Schoenberg or the Stravinsky, that for them is like a big orchestra doing Beethoven's 5th. These are the classics of the contemporary chamber repertoire."

After three nights of music by Mr. Adams and other modern composers, Saturday's show at Atlas will be a change of pace as the U.S. Army Blues presents a big-band night, recognizing the swing band era music of Irwin's Winnipesaukee Gardens, a New Hampshire dance hall owned by Mr. Adams' grandfather.

Though the music of Saturday's show will differ greatly from the music of the three previous nights, Mr. Adams sees similarities in how modern audiences treat the two styles. "I think it's sort of a pity that people don't hear big-band music live these days," he said. "It's considered repertoire of older people, and that's really a drag, because it's just an amazing sound to hear a big band live. It's our indigenous music, and a lot of that use of brass and winds that you hear in Ellington and Basie and Benny Goodman's bands have had a huge influence on how I use an orchestra."

Though Mr. Adams' residency at the Library of Congress will come to a close after the May 25 show at the Atlas, Mr. Adams is in no hurry to leave town. He will move to the Kennedy Center for three nights of performances with the National Symphony Orchestra, leading a performance of his composition City Noir and a Maurice Ravel piano concerto.

"I love going to Washington," said Mr. Adams. "It isn't just the Library of Congress; it's the Kennedy Center and the arts scene, and Washington is really exciting. You feel like on one hand you're at the heartbeat of the nation, but as an American composer you feel part of the nation's cultural heritage, and that's a very moving experience."

WHAT: John Adams residency, Library of Congress "American Voices" Concert Season

WHERE: Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium, 101 Independence Ave. SE; Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE

WHEN: May 22-25

PHONE: Library of Congress: 202/707-5507; Atlas Performing Arts Center: 202/399-7993

WEB: loc.gov, atlasarts.org

ADMISSION: Free (tickets required)