Wondering which music by today’s composers will be regularly heard 50 or 100 years from now? A good bet would be the works of composer John Adams, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his moving memorial to the victims of 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls. According to data compiled by the League of American Orchestras, Adams by far represents the most performed American composer. In addition to Nixon in China (1987), one of the few recent operas to enter the standard repertoire, his other notable works include Harmonielehre (1985), Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998), and The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013).

In 2017, classical-music institutions worldwide, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, Philharmonie de Paris and Barbican in London, are marking Adams’ 70th birthday, which was Feb. 15, with performances of his works and other special events. To that end, guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Adams’ Scheherazade.2, billed as “a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra,” on March 2, 4 and 7. It was written in 2014-15 for violinist Leila Josefowicz, who will be the soloist for these concerts. On March 9-11, Salonen and the orchestra will offer Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox. Finally, on March 12, the Burnham Chamber Ensemble, consisting of CSO members, will play John’s Book of Alleged Dances, a string quartet that Adams composed in 1994, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In an interview shortly before his birthday, Adams spoke about turning 70, his new opera and the works that will be heard in Chicago:

What are your emotions on turning 70 and the many tributes surrounding the occasion?

Obviously, the first emotion is gratitude. I’m very honored for all the interest and enthusiasm. You know, I’ve been looking back on my career of composing now, which goes back about 40 years, and thinking that I’ve just been very privileged to be able to do what I have done and to try to keep an American language in this world of classical music. When you compare it to the other arts, classical-music audiences are the most risk-adverse and anxious of all consumers of art, compared to people who go to art museums and watch films. So I feel very humbled to be able to continue to do what I do.

Do you think much about what your legacy?

(Chuckle) Well, that’s a temptation. Seventy, it’s just a random number, a random year. I know that the world loves to suddenly remember composers on their birthdays that are divisible by 10. But I’m trying not to make some sort of historical appraisal of my work, because I think if I did, I would become very self-conscious about it. I haven’t been 100 percent successful at that, because I’ve constantly being asked this question. Even in Europe, people still refer to my music as minimalist, which is such a head-scratcher at this point. But that’s usually people who are just not very well informed or are just not curious.

You just mentioned being an American in the field of classical music, which obviously comes from European roots. What does that mean to you? 

I’ve said this many times but one of things that appeals to me and catches my imagination in any work of art is its ethnic quality. So while I acknowledge, for example, that Goethe is on one level a universal voice, there is something wonderfully German about him. And there is something about Debussy or Proust that breathes the flavor of French culture. In the case of Duke Ellington, it’s the wonderful spirit, depth and humanity of African-American culture. Without turning into a jingoist (he chuckles) or being musical version of “America First,” which I certainly don’t agree with [referring to President Trump’s inaugural speech], I do think that being able to express what you might call an ethnic American sensibility has been one of the driving factors of my creative life.


Even though you are from New England, you have spent most of your life in the western United States. Now you have written an opera called Girls of the Golden West, which seems to spring out of that Western ethos. (The work will have its premiere in November at the San Francisco Opera.)

I certainly wouldn’t want an obituary written that I was a Western composer, because, obviously, my concerns go far beyond that, especially in my operas. But I have found certain, what you might call, archetypes that have been appealing to go into on a musical level. Certainly The Dharma at Big Sur, which was inspired by the imaginary image of Jack Kerouac standing on the precipice facing out to the Pacific, or City Noir, which is a kind of imaginary film-noir score, and of course, this new opera. So, yeah, that’s one of the things about Béla Bartók. His imagination was so stimulated by his own culture. So was Leoš Janáček and Jean Sibelius. That can be a very fruitful thing if you approach it with a level of high artistic integrity.

With the title Girls of the Golden West, you’re coming right out of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West. Could you elaborate?

Peter Sellars, my longtime collaborator, and I were kicking around ideas for a new theatrical work, and he mentioned that he had been asked by La Scala to do a production of it [The Girl of the Golden West]. When he read the libretto, which is based on a play by Belasco, he found that while it was perhaps a genuine period piece in the way that Jack London novels are, it really didn’t reflect the realities of the Gold Rush and the incredible mix of nationalities that descended on San Francisco and the Sierras. And so we decided to make an opera that really, as best we could, described [this time] with first-hand accounts, by assembling an libretto that was made up of source material — letters, newspaper articles and memoirs.

One of the things I discovered in my reading was that the Gold Rush (he chuckles) was really stimulated by fake news, that all these people back in the East and as far away as places like Chile and Europe read in the newspapers that all you had to do was get yourself here and you could just bend over and pick up enormous nuggets of gold. Then another sort of alarming analogy happened in the course of composing this. I had been working on it for about 1½ years, and I discovered that when things started to go wrong here and the gold became harder and harder to find, the white miners turned on the Mexicans and they turned on the Chinese, and they turned on the few blacks that were here. Does that sound familiar? So this was all happening while I was following the [November] elections, so I realized, as they say, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Let’s talk about the pieces that the CSO is performing to mark your birthday. Esa-Pekka Salonen is conducting the two orchestral pieces. You have worked together quite a bit over the years, right?

I met him early on in his residency in Los Angeles, and I like him as a person. He is a very modest guy, and that does not come with the job description. And of course, he is a stupendous musician. A very quick intellect. And he is a composer, a serious composer. So we click on a lot of levels. What he did during his tenure in Los Angeles [as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1992-2009] was just extraordinary. It’s one of the only orchestras in the country that views itself like a modern-art museum, that doesn’t feel that contemporary music is this bitter pill that has to be swallowed and washed down with a Tchaikovsky symphony. I wrote a very large piece for him, which he actually also did with the CSO called Naïve and Sentimental Music, which I dedicated to him.

You wrote Scheherazade.2 for Leila Josefowicz, and the two of you have had a long creative relationship. On your website you even give her the ultimate compliment, calling her “friend and colleague.”

Yeah, I adore her.

The idea of writing a piece specifically for someone is fascinating. What’s it like when you can write specifically for someone and the way they play?

You’re probably inspired if that person has uniqueness and personality. I’m trying to think back with my operas if I’ve written an opera or oratorio where I didn’t have singers in mind. I don’t think I ever have. I wrote Nixon in China with those singers in mind, and Gerald Finley in Doctor Atomic. In the case of Leila, there is just this incredible fire. I joke with her and call her Lisbeth Salander. I don’t know if you know The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But it’s that kind of power. It’s not an aggressive, unpleasant flashiness, but it’s a kind empowered, feminine archetype that I find really ideal.

So I got this collision of ideas. One was that I wanted to write a work for Leila and I had been in Paris and went to this exhibition about Scheherazade, and I thought how horrible the original story was if you really think about it. Then I thought of all the images I’ve seen lately on the internet of women being abused, whether it was in the Mideast or in this country, different levels of abuse. We don’t stone women to death in this country, but we shame them. The other thing about collaborating in the case of Leila, we had a wonderful back and forth, where I would send her a passage, and she would tell me what was awkward about it and maybe even in some cases suggest a solution. She’s played that piece now nearly 40 times in the last two years since it was premiered. She and I did with the Berlin Philharmonic and made a recording that will probably come out at the end of this year. But she has already made a recording with David Robertson, which is just stupendous.

Let’s talk about The Death of Klinghoffer, the production at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014 and the protests that surrounded it. In a sense, it was heartening that a classical-music work could generate that much of a uproar. What did you think about the protests and everything that happened in New York when it was presented?

It was very a painful time for me, because I was subjected to a very organized and very virulent campaign on the internet. But actually, the more heated it got, the less often I was mentioned, and they aimed at [Met general manager] Peter Gelb in very personal ways. I could try to put a positive spin on it and say, well, this shows that a work of art can be relevant and get people talking. But that was so overshadowed by the really grievous events that happened — the protests. They gathered people out front of Lincoln Center, and many people didn’t even know what they were protesting. They didn’t even know that it was an opera. They had just been bused in. And the fact that there were some politicians who tried to make hay out it, like Rudy Giuliani. That the Anti-Defamation League was able to exert its weight to force the cancellation of the international telecast of the opera was a terrible thing. It was a real case of censorship. What it was that the opera told both sides of the story, to me, in equal emotional intensity — both the Palestinian narrative and the Israeli narrative. And that was unacceptable to them. I think that was just really a terrible thing.

You really do enjoy conducting. Why has that been so important to you?

I grew up as a performer. I played clarinet, and when I was in college I was a substitute with the Boston Symphony on occasion. I started conducting when I was in high school, and I often say that it is the yin to the yang of composing. I need to have both — that extroverted, public activity to balance to balance the introverted and solitary nature of my composing.

You are conducting this season as composer-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic, right? 

Yes, I did a week with them [in September] where I conducted both Scheherazade.2 and Harmonielehre. It was amazing (he chuckles), because when I got there, I was a little nervous. Anybody would be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and then I realized that they were more nervous than I was, because my rhythmic language is a very challenging thing for orchestras fed on Brahms and Mahler. They are a self-governing orchestra, and they voted for a whole extra day of rehearsals to make sure they got it right. I had such a great time with them. Just this past week I went back and heard Simon Rattle do this big oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and it was just a peak experience. It’s such a wonderful orchestra.

They didn’t want me to take more than a half hour of your time …

Oh, that’s OK. I also should mention that I’m really, really proud of my son [Samuel Adams, the CSO’s Mead composer-in-residence] and his relationship with the orchestra. He knows the players now, knows what they like to do.

Kyle MacMillan, former classical music of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.