John Adams Revitalizes the Violin Concerto

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Concert Cast List

John Adams: Violin Concerto

Leila Josefowicz, violin

Roberto Abbado, conductor

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

In concert at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul, Minn.

Violinist Leila Josefowicz

In John Adams' violin concerto, soloist Leila Josefowicz is busy fiddling for nearly the entire 32-minute duration. Deborah O'Grady hide caption

itoggle caption Deborah O'Grady
Composer John Adams

John Adams wrote a violin concerto with a sound that looks both forward and backward. Deborah O'Grady hide caption

itoggle caption Deborah O'Grady

The composer John Adams once said in an interview, "It's taken me 20 years to escape from the corrosive effects of graduate school."

To interpret this remarkable statement, you have to decipher a bit of code. Adams studied composition at Harvard. Adhering to the post-war trend at most universities, Harvard cleaved to a particular approach to writing music. For decades, if you didn't adopt Arnold Schoenberg's austere 12-tone system in creating music, you simply couldn't call yourself a serious composer.

As intellectually elegant as Schoenberg's serialism technique was for those who mastered it, the formula was never as satisfying for many who attempted simply to listen to it. For composers like John Adams — by any measure a very serious individual — it represented an intolerable prison.

Adams rebelled, and broke out.

He first found refuge in the compositional style called Minimalism (created and developed by his senior contemporaries Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich). But Adams' music never fit comfortably in that box, and he chafed at his identification as a Minimalist every bit as much as he'd strained at the 12-tone leash.

Adams soon transcended labels and schools, and now, another 20 years after escaping those "corrosive effects," his compositions have surprised, dazzled, and eluded easy description. They are products of the serious, capacious imagination of John Adams at play.

His Violin Concerto (written in 1993) is one of these Adams originals. It was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the New York City Ballet as a piece for both the concert hall and the ballet stage. The Concerto won the distinguished Grawemeyer Award (for composition) in 1995.

In this St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance, Leila Josefowicz is the soloist, with Roberto Abbado conducting. Adams says the concerto requires feats of focus and strength from the violinist.

"The solo [violin] voice is almost never-ending, the orchestra remaining either behind it or below it, providing a backdrop of more or less regular events that unfold like scenes on a long Chinese scroll," Adams says.

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