One of the complaints heard from non-fans of classical music is that so much of it reaches back centuries. As one wag, who preferred jazz, put it: “Mozart hasn’t written anything decent in 200 years!”
And yet classical, as a genre, continues to unfold even in our lifetimes. Which means there may be among us the composer who will someday be seen by the world the way we view Beethoven or Mozart — or Bernstein, or Shostakovich, to cite a couple more recent examples. They wrote for their own contemporary audiences, and not all their story lines were highfalutin’ myths – think “Fidelio” (about a foe of the state, unjustly imprisoned), “The Marriage of Figaro” (about a serving-man who outsmarts the noble who’s got his eye on Figaro’s fiancée) “Candide” (in this romp, naïve young people learn a whole lot, fast) or “The Nose” (an absurd tale about a man whose nose takes off and becomes a higher-ranking official than he is).
On Friday, May 14, at noon, American composer John Adams, whose operas are based on such characters as former President Richard Nixon and atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, will speak at the Library of Congress about his biography, “Hallelujah Junction.” The event, to be held in the Whittall Pavilion, ground floor of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First St. S.E. in Washington, D.C., will be free and open to the public; no tickets are necessary.
Adams, 63, whose work includes the operas “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Dr. Atomic” (he frequently collaborates with director Peter Sellars) also writes symphonic music and string quartets, and conducts. His piece “On the Transmigration of Souls,” written to commemorate the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003.
This week (Thursday May 13-Saturday May 15) Adams will conduct a National Symphony Orchestra program (Thursday at 7 p.m. , Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.) at the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The program will open with Adams’ piece for baritone and orchestra “The Wound-Dresser,” based on a poem by Walt Whitman. Bass-baritone Eric Owens will perform the work. That program will also include a suite from Copland’s “Billy the Kid,” Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Prior to the Saturday night performance, at 6 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Gallery, there will be a screening of the documentary “John Adams: A Portrait.”
Next week, May 20-22, Adams will conduct the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in performances by violinist Leila Josefowicz of Adams’ “Dharma at Big Sur,” described by the Chicago Tribune as “a lyrical, ecstatic homage to the West Coast beat culture of Jack Kerouac.” Josefowicz plays a specially designed, six-string electric violin in the piece. That concert will also feature Adams’ “Doctor Atomic Symphony,” based on themes from his opera “Doctor Atomic” and works by Britten and Stravinsky. The Friday performance is a 1:30 p.m. matinee, the Thursday performance is at 7 p.m. and the Saturday performance is at 8 p.m.
Here, from Adams’ website, is his description of his piece “City Noir,” published last year.