When composer John Adams returns to the New York Philharmonic this month, it will be for more than checking in on a performance of his own music. Following the March 23 concert featuring The Wound-Dresser, his setting of Walt Whitman’s poem reflecting on his experience as a Civil War hospital volunteer, Adams will head over to the Kaplan Penthouse to act as curator for a Kravis Nightcap, the latest in this popular series of cabaret-style programs. The lineup features a bit more of Adams’s own music, coupled with that of emerging composers he has connected with and encouraged in recent years, including Timo Andres, Nico Muhly, and Gabriella Smith.
While he jokes about the “glamorous” title of curator, it is fitting that Adams should take a lead in selecting new works for a new Philharmonic series. It’s a role he has been playing, in one way or another, for almost four decades. His first appearance with the Orchestra was in 1983, when his Grand Pianola Music was performed as part of Horizons, a new-music festival hosted—or, one could say, curated—by composer Jacob Druckman.
And if the piece wasn’t necessarily well received—Adams later recalled “a shocking number of boos,” perhaps due to its inclusion in a predominantly serialist program—it began a relationship that has since deepened. The Philharmonic gave the New York Premiere of his Harmonielehre, in 1987, and the World Premiere of Scheherazade.2—Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra, in 2015, and commissioned him to craft a work commemorating the victims of 9/11. On the Transmigration of Souls was premiered in September 2002 to mark the first anniversary of the attacks, and Adams’s contemplative “memory space” work went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Grammys for the Philharmonic’s live recording.
“That commission was such a great honor, because they could have chosen any composer in the world,” Adams says. He felt similarly honored when the Philharmonic celebrated his 70th birthday in 2017 with a program of his music performed in New York and on tour to Europe: “It’s always been exciting to be with the Philharmonic. I know quite a few of the people in the Orchestra and I have a nice history with them.” Part of that history derives from direct working relationships with musicians forged in past conducting appearances. He will return to that role, picking up the baton in March 2019 to lead his own City Noir.
The first program Adams conducted with the Philharmonic, in 1997, featured his own works plus Ives’s; in 2004 he again conducted his own music coupled with Ives. The composers are paired again on the March 21–26 program, which opens with Ives’s Central Park in the Dark, followed by The Wound-Dresser, sung by The Mary and James. G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence Matthias Goerne.
Adams recognizes the essential American-ness that links himself with Ives, while musing on the gulf between Ives and composers of today: “He lived and worked alone at a time when there wasn’t much support for artists,” he says. “He was extremely experimental in ways that still seem so today ... and not everything worked. I think that’s partly because he didn’t have the kind of practical, hands-on experience of someone like Mahler or others in Europe.” A composer working in relative isolation in America lacked the benefit of feedback from performance opportunities and musical colleagues.
Adams sees that kind of community and collaboration springing up among composers across the country, from New York to Los Angeles and cities in between: “It’s a very good scene right now.” Adams definitely keeps in the mix himself: just look at the composers represented on the Nightcap he is curating. “Timo, I’ve conducted his music and we always share what we’re doing. I’m in touch with Nico Muhly several times a week; he’s an inveterate texter and very, very funny. It’s encouraging to be in touch with these young musicians.”
The curator is in, and looking to keep the momentum going next season, when he will conduct the World Premiere of a New York Philharmonic commission from Olga Neuwirth, whom he champions, alongside his own music. Stay tuned.
Rebecca Winzenried is the Program and Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.