This week, John Adams conducts the Dallas Symphony in a weekend of concerts. Next month, Adams turns 72. For decades, he’s been practicing — and excelling at — one of the world’s most endangered professions: composer of classical music. And, against the public perception of a field led by dead Europeans, he paints an optimistic portrait of a musical scene liberated from tradition, increasingly inclusive and very much alive.
“It’s a very good time to be a young composer,” Adams told the Observer by phone, just before a rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “When I was in my 20s, it was unthinkable that you would earn a living as a composer.”
When the young Adams set forth on his career, composers were expected to teach to pay the bills and write music in their free time, but before that, composers scrounged together livings in other ways. Such now-iconic names as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland and Vaughan Williams cashed in by writing movie soundtracks. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all dedicated masterpieces to the wealthy princes and counts who paid their bills. Today they would probably offer corporate naming rights for their symphonies. (From 2001 to 2007, composer Peter Maxwell Davies did just that, naming 10 string quartets after the record label Naxos.)
So the shift Adams describes is truly historic.
“There are [now] quite a few young people who are in their 20s and 30s who are able to make enough money to just write music, which is incredible," he says.
But something else has shifted, besides money: Classical music now encompasses a head-spinning variety of styles and sound-worlds, everything from minimalism to electronic landscapes, from a delirious 120-piece orchestra to one sad trombone.
When Adams was a student, a fixed number of musical styles fought like political parties.
“I remember back when I was in college it was very alarming,” Adams says. “Because we felt that you had to decide which team you were on. You were with John Cage, or you were with Milton Babbitt, or Pierre Boulez, or maybe if you were really hip you heard your first Philip Glass piece. It was a very clearly defined set of stylistic pigeonholes.
“If I can say anything about my own work, I am one of the first to sort of break through and create a language that absorbed all these things but was more open in its expression. That could absorb elements of pop music and jazz and the techniques of the avant-garde.”
When Adams uses the word “open,” he refers to the public perception that avant-garde composers built barriers between the performers and the audience, or left listeners feeling “confused.”
“I think my music I think is accessible in the best sense of the word,” Adams says. “I hope it is. I try to convey feeling in its many different shades whether it’s excitement or lyricism or invention.”
His own eclecticism is reflected in his musical taste. Asked to name favorite composer colleagues, Adams declines; he promotes the work of too many people.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m playing favorites,” he says. “I do so many world premieres, and my wife and I have a foundation to commission new work.”
But he mentions such diverse stylists as Ashley Fure, Gabriella Smith, Julia Wolfe and Andrew Norman, taking extra time to remark on Norman’s “highly energized” music, which often takes inspiration from video game action and sounds.
“It occurs to me that young composers are just not concerned with style,” Adams says.
It sounds like an insult, but it’s not — he’s thrilled to see that today’s music writers are freed from the rival stylistic factions of decades past, and able to work with, or invent, any style they want.
For his long-awaited Dallas Symphony debut, Adams is bringing along two of his own compositions — the four-minute hair-raiser “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and his first Violin Concerto. “Short Ride” is as fast and furious as its name suggests, and it’s probably his most-performed piece.
“It seems to get done once or twice a week somewhere in the world,” Adams says. “I do it because I like it. It’s a good opening piece. Kinda wakes everybody up.”
The Violin Concerto is more serious-minded, a half-hour that moves from meditation to frenzy, with elements of minimalism, modernism, jazz and folk Americana. Elements of rhythm and dance occur constantly; the piece was actually written so that it could be performed as a ballet. Violin soloist Leila Josefowicz claims to have performed it over 100 times — quite an achievement, given that the work was premiered 24 years ago.
“She decided at a very young age that she just didn’t want to go around playing Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky,” Adams explains. “She wanted to devote herself to doing music of our time. She’s a deeply passionate performer. She’s a thrill to be on stage with. She’s so committed.”
The second half of the program includes works by Claude Debussy (Sacred and Profane Dances, featuring DSO principal harpist Emily Levin) and Respighi (Roman Festivals).
“I’m very excited to come to Dallas,” Adams adds.
It’s his first time working with Dallas Symphony, although he knows the orchestra by its national reputation and has known co-concertmaster Nathan Olson since Olson was a child.
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He’s a little less excited to be the only living composer the Dallas Symphony is featuring all season long. (“Oh boy. I don’t know what to say about that.”) But the DSO is making changes to address that deficiency in future years, including a 10-year program that will commission 20 brand-new works for the orchestra, half of them written by women. That program will help bring a new vitality and relevance to the Dallas Symphony’s repertoire — but it’s also a reflection of the improving outlook for composing as a field.
“There are some orchestras in the country that are very progressive, that view themselves like a good art museum, which doesn’t only have Rembrandts and Van Goghs, but also has the latest artists as well,” Adams says.
His concerts this weekend foreshadow an era in which the Dallas Symphony will show its progressive credentials.