USO to premiere year’s inaugural performance with compositions of John Adams

Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 3:05pm

Performing an orchestra concert takes a considerable number of people. It takes an orchestra’s worth, of course, but behind the scenes there are even more individuals working to manage all of the logistics of such a large endeavor.  Even prior to the concert, someone has to figure out how to get around 80 different people with different lives together in the same room at the same time to rehearse the music. Understandably, it’s difficult, and as a result, professional orchestras generally only have a couple of rehearsals before a given concert. In this model, it becomes useful to rely on pieces of music which are mostly known to the musicians, pulled from a collection of standard repertoire which has crystallized over the last century and a half. Playing new and contemporary work provides challenges, and most living composers have their orchestral music performed quite rarely. But most composers aren’t John Adams.

On Friday the 23rd the University Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Kenneth Kiesler, will be giving their inaugural performance of the year, featuring music by John Adams and George Gershwin.

Adams — who was born and raised in New England before relocating to California after graduating from Harvard — is perhaps the most famous living American concert composer. He is more frequently performed than any other American composer alive and has been the focus of national and international fame for the better part of three decades, since the premiere of his well-known opera “Nixon in China.” On Friday the USO will be playing two pieces, spanning from his “Nixon in China” era to the present decade.

The larger of the two Adams pieces being performed is more recent, his “Saxophone Concerto,” which will feature Music Prof. Timothy McAllister as soloist, a role he also filled at the premiere of the concerto in 2013.

“I met him because the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought him in to play the solo sax part in a piece I’d written for the first concert with [Gustavo Dudamel] as music director, a piece called ‘City Noir,’ ” Adams said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.  “There’s a sort of jazz inflected part that was very difficult, and they felt that nobody in the LA area was really appropriate to play it, so they brought Tim in, and I was absolutely entranced by his talent and his skill. So I decided to write a concerto for him.”

The saxophone is not generally thought of in the context of classical music. Most people who are familiar with the instrument first came to know it through the iconic sound of jazz music, and Adams is no different.

“I discovered the saxophone largely through listening to a lot of great jazz players, and I think I had that sound and that kind of spontaneity in mind and was trying to translate that into a work which, obviously, has more formal outlines,” Adams said. “I didn’t want to write a piece that called for the saxophonist to improvise his or her own ideas, I wanted to make a work that sounded or felt like it was largely improvised but at the same time was very specifically notated.”

This sense of jazz-derived liberty appropriately links the “Saxophone Concerto” to Adams’s earlier piece, “City Noir,” which was heavily jazz influenced and was how the saxophonist McAllister and the composer Adams first met. Decades before either of these pieces, however, Adams was writing a very different style of music, as the other Adams piece on the program, “The Chairman Dances,” demonstrates.

“I think my work has evolved,” Adams said. “I think a work like ‘The Chairman Dances’ is probably a little more — parts of it — are a little more pulse-driven. You don’t quite feel that consistent, inevitable pulse in the sax concerto that you feel in ‘The Chairman Dances.’ ”

“The Chairman Dances” is an example of Adams’s earlier style, which has been described as post-minimalism, though the composer has eschewed that term in favor of “post-style.” Given Adams’s artistic evolution over the years, this latter term does indeed seem to be the most accurate description of his work as a whole.

“Each piece is its own little world,” Adams said. “I don’t like to repeat myself. There are a lot of artists, and painters and even some composers who find a successful template and they tend to repeat it, just slightly altering it. But I try to — for lack of a better term — develop an entirely unique DNA for each piece.  I think each one of my pieces is uniquely different from all the others.”

Complementing Adams’s partially jazz-inspired selections is the rest of the evening’s program, which is comprised of two pieces by the extremely famous 20th-century American composer George Gershwin, who is known for his fusion of the jazz and classical genres. The concert will feature Music Prof. Logan Skelton performing Gershwin’s 1925 “Piano Concerto in F” — which is the composer’s second most known composition for piano and orchestra, after his universally recognized “Rhapsody in Blue” — and his symphonic poem “An American in Paris,” which is based on the composer’s experience abroad in the French capital of the 1920s. Both of the Gershwin pieces are new critical editions, and this will be the first time that these editions will be performed. 

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University Symphony Orchestra to Perform Adams and Gershwin

September 23rd, 8 PM; pre-concert lecture 7:15 PM

Hill Auditorium

Free