John Adams Re-Imagines the Hymn

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John Adams' American Standard moves through three song forms: the march, the hymn, and the jazz ballad. Christian Zeal and Activity represents the hymn. John Vachon / courtesy of the Library of Congress hide caption

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Composer John Adams. Deborah O'Grady hide caption

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John Adams' early work Christian Zeal and Activity serves as the center of a musical triptych called American Standard. Its hymn-like composition is employed by a string orchestra that moves with a grace and slowness that reflects the importance of the original song form. In a concert from the Wordless Music Series, recorded by WNYC, the piece was performed live by the Wordless Music Orchestra on Jan. 16, 2008, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Conductor Brad Lubman led the ensemble.

The piece begins and ends in reverence, just like a choral hymn. It moves slowly, setting the scene in a tiny church amid the plains. Christian Zeal never quite climaxes, but instead remains suspended in a state of wonderment.

Adams encourages the players to add "sonic found objects" to the performance, and on this night, the Wordless Music Orchestra used the recorded sermon originally heard on conductor Edo De Waart's 1987 recording of the same piece, The Chairman Dances. As the pastor preaches on the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, the tape loops emphasize his words with great passion, hitting on a specific phrase: "Why would Jesus have been drawn to a withered hand?" The orchestra plays off the found sound with subtle and sensitive aplomb.

Hear the other pieces from the concert: Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver and Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic.

Webcasts of the Wordless Music Series are produced by WNYC and hosted by Jad Abumrad.

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