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John Adams: bio and discography

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 advisor 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 by a contract with Nonesuch Records in 1986.

Of John Adams' 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 Beilefeld (in German).

Adams' 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.

Initially known as a Minimalist, Adams has in his mature work harnessed the rhythmic energy of Minimalism to the harmonies and orchestral colors of late-Romanticism. Concurrently he has introduced references to a wide range of 20th century idioms - both 'popular' and 'serious' - in works such as his two operas and the wittily eclectic orchestral piece "Fearful Symmetries", which touches on Stravinsky, Honegger, and big-band swing music.

Other 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"; "Eros Piano", a sensuous composition for piano and chamber orchestra; and "El Dorado", a commission from the San Francisco Symphony that addresses the effects of greed on our environment and society.

Adams' most recent chamber piece is "Chamber Symphony", which merges the virtuostic expressionism of Schoenberg with the manic world of cartoon soundtrack music. Since its premiere in January 1993, "Chamber Symphony", scored for fifteen instruments, has met with extraordinary success: more than 25 ensembles have performed or scheduled the work. In addition, "Chamber Symphony" won Adams the 1994 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Best Chamber Composition. Other honors include the California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, and the Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.

January 1994 marked the debut of Adams' "Violin Concerto", written in an unusual three-way commission between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony and the New York City Ballet. The latter organization presented the score with choreography by Peter Martins during the 1994-95 season. His newest stage work is 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.

In 1991, a survey of major orchestras conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League found John Adams to be the most frequently-performed living American composer.


* The Chairman Dances: San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, conductor; 1987 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 9-79144-2)

* Chamber Symphony; Grand Pianola Music: London Sinfonietta; 1994 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 9-79219-2)

* The Death of Klinghoffer: Lyon Opera Orchestra & English Opera Chorus, Kent Nagano, conductor; 1993 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 2-79281)

* Fearful Symmetries; The Wound Dresser: Orchestra of St. Luke's; 1989 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 9-79218-233)

* Harmonielehre: San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, conductor; 1985 (Nonesuch, 79115-2)

* Harmonielehre: City of Birmingham Orchestra, Simon Rattle, conductor; 1994 (EMI, 5-55051-2)

* Harmonium: San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, conductor; 1984 (ECM New Series, 1277)

* Hoodoo Zephyr: 1993 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 9-79311-2)

* Nixon in China (An Opera in Three Acts): Orchestra of St. Luke's, Edo de Waart, conductor, J.Duykers, J. Maddelena, et al; 1988 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 9-79177-2)

* Phrygian Gates; Shaker Loops: Mark McCray, piano; The Ridge String Quartet with guests; 1986 (New Albion, NA007 LP)

* Shaker Loops; Light Over Water: 1987 (New Albion, NA014)

* Shaker Loops; Variations for Winds, Strings & Keyboards: San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, conductor; 1983 (Philips, 412-214-2)


* "Eros Pianos" from American Elegies: works of Adams, Ives, Marshall, Feldman, Diamond; conducted, and Ives arrangements, by John Adams; Orchestra of St. Luke's; 1991 (Elektra/Nonesuch, 79249-2)


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