Adams on Zankel: A Real Watershed

Classic Arts Features   Adams on Zankel: A Real Watershed
John Adams, America's most performed living composer, wraps up his four-year residency at Carnegie Hall with a dynamic In Your Ear Redux beginning on March 16.

In his fourth and final season as holder of the Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall, John Adams is continuing to assemble some outrageously talented upstarts in In Your Ear Redux, a weekend of concerts in Zankel Hall. He's particularly keen on a new breed of young composers who are also performers, who show a mix of influences from popular culture to the classical canon. "They could be influenced by Nancarrow or Zappa or electronica, movie music, or rock," says Adams.

The first concert, on March 16, will feature composer-keyboardist Nico Muhly with the Vox Vocal Ensemble. "I first met him in 2003 when I was conducting the Juilliard Orchestra, and he was playing piano in Harmonielehre," recalls Adams. "I was very happy to see his growth as a composer. He just produced a very elegant CD, Speaks Volumes. It's a stunning piece of work." In the program Muhly intermingles his own extremely pretty and sensuous music with that of English Renaissance and neo-Renaissance masters William Byrd, Thomas Weelkes, and John Taverner.

"Nico's no monochromatic modernist," observes Adams. "I'm at a loss for words to try to describe his music because the range is so wide. I think he's someone we're going to hear from a lot in the future."

Adams is also calling attention to progressive bluegrass with Chris Thile and the Tensions Mountain Boys on March 17. Thile started off as a plucky mandolin prodigy at age five, then went on to record arrangements of Charlie Parker and J. S. Bach. He is primarily known for his work with the "newgrass" trio Nickel Creek, which won a Grammy in 2003 for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The trio has since broken up, and Thile is now performing with guitarist Chris Eldridge, bass player Greg Garrison, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and fiddler Gabe Witcher, all of whom will be at the Carnegie Hall gig. Featured on the program is the world premiere of Thile's new 40-minute work, The Blind Leaving the Blind, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that mixes elements of pop songs and large-scale classical works.

The last program, on March 18, is dedicated to the thrilling contemporary-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, which has made quite a name for itself the past couple of years.

"They play my small ensemble pieces like no one else on the planet," claims Adams. Although the group leads its program off with Adams's Scratchband‹which the composer describes as more or less his "Chamber Symphony with dyed black hair and lots of piercing"‹the rest of the program showcases the diverse compositional talents of the group. "Seventy percent of them are composers," says Adams, "so I talked to Alan Pierson, the conductor, and suggested that we call attention to that fact."

Those familiar with the group will be eager to hear "live" its spectacular arrangements of pieces by the electronic group Aphex Twin. It's one of the projects that put the group on the map, but one it initially approached with trepidation.

"There was a concern that it would sound corny," explains Pierson. "But our cellist Stefan Freund's arrangement of Cock/Ver 10 and our keyboardist John Orfe's of Jenweythek were our proof of concept. Both are first-rate orchestrators who took the Aphex originals and really investigated them." There will be three other arrangements by other AWS members plus the world premiere of Cfern, an arrangement of a piece by the electronica artist Autechre.

Freund himself offers a world premiere, Paper Trails: A Conflation of Wars, a theater piece that tells the true story of a mayor in Florida who in 2001 ordered a town edict banning the devil on Halloween.

Adams takes a moment to reflect on his time at Carnegie Hall, which will be capped with a concert of his works in April by the American Composers Orchestra. "If I leave any legacy," he says, "it will be the use of Zankel Hall as a venue for this new breed of creative person: composer-performers who don't rely on traditional vehicles like symphony orchestras or opera companies to get their music out. It's a real watershed in the way composers are behaving now."

Robert Hilferty is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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