John Adams’ “Shaker Loops”: Riding Ferocious Sonic Waves

John Adams’ 1978 string septet, Shaker Loops, takes us on a ferocious and exhilarating sonic ride. It’s powerful music that is made up of elemental forces—pulse, gradually shifting patterns, and harmonic tension and release. At times, it unfolds with the frightening inevitability of an enormous, infernal, rumbling conveyor belt. At other times, we experience something similar to those mysterious, icy Sibelius tremolo passages which stand on the edge of silence. The title, Shaker Loops is …

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John Adams’ Piano Concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”

John Adams’ Piano Concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of its 2018-19 Centennial season. Technically, it counts as Adams’ “Piano Concerto No. 3,” following the exhilaratingly mechanical Century Rolls (1996) and the dreamy impressionism of Eros Piano (1989). The Concerto unfolds seamlessly in a single, continuous movement broken into three sections (fast-slow-fast). According to Adams, the title, attributed to Martin Luther, came from an article …

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Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale”: A Shimmering, Impressionist Tone Poem

In 1908, the 26-year-old Igor Stravinsky, still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, completed the first act of an opera, Le Rossignol (“The Nightingale”), based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. When Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write the ballet score for The Firebird, the work was set aside. Only in 1914, after the completion of The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, did Stravinsky return to the project. Listening to the complete …

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Remembering Sanford Sylvan

The renowned American baritone Sanford Sylvan passed away suddenly last week. He was 65. Sylvan’s career on the opera stage included premieres of works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Peter Maxwell Davies and Christopher Rouse. He was the first to perform the role of Chou En-lai in Nixon in China (1987) and Leon Klinghoffer in The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). In addition, he premiered Adams’ haunting setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, The Wound Dresser. He was an …

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New Release: Ian Bostridge Joins the Seattle Symphony for Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy

Song cycles by three French composers- Berlioz, Ravel, and Debussy- come to life spectacularly on a newly-released album featuring the English tenor Ian Bostridge with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. The recording appears on Seattle Symphony Media, the orchestra’s innovative, Grammy-winning, in-house record label. Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été was recorded at a live concert at Benaroya Hall in November 2017. Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Debussy’s Le livre de Baudelaire, orchestrated by John Adams in 1994, are studio recordings. Here are a few excerpts: …

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Aftertones of Ives

Mahler, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Debussy, Ives, and other voices from the past emerge throughout the music of John Adams like fleeting ghosts. These voices are present in Adams’ towering neo-minimalist, neo-romantic symphony, Harmonielehre. They can also be heard in Slonimsky’s Earbox, the composer’s brief 1995 tone poem, premiered by Kent Nagano and the Manchester, UK-based Hallé Orchestra on the occasion of the September, 1996 opening of Bridgewater Hall. The title refers to Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), the Russian-born American conductor, composer, musical theorist, and author. …

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John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic”: Three Excerpts

In a 1987 interview with Edward Strickland, John Adams discussed myth and archetype in relation to his new (at the time) opera, Nixon in China: …My Nixon is not the historical Richard Nixon, he is every President. I take him to be an archetype of an American head of state- maybe not even necessarily a head of state, just any emotionally undeveloped man who finds himself in a position of tremendous power. It’s …

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