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Violin Concerto

composer
1993

 
John Adams was raised in rural America and could claim Celtic connections, at least through his mother’s stepfather. He grew up in New England and received his first lessons in music from his clarinettist father. Adams’s maternal grandfather took part in the boom years that followed America’s intervention in the First World War. The Adams family was rocked by the Great Depression; young John’s father, meanwhile, struggled to make a living as a travelling salesman, selling what he described as ‘nuts and bolts’ in and around Concord, New Hampshire. Adams made swift progress on the clarinet, especially so when he took lessons from Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He enrolled at Harvard University in 1965, graduating magna cum laude in 1969 and gaining his MA in composition two years later. The young musician was touched by the civil unrest and political turmoil that swept America in the late 1960s: “It was as if American society had been left on spin cycle with no one capable of calming the nation’s anxieties,” he recalled in his polemical memoir, Hallelujah Junction. “In the phrase of William Burroughs, we’d bought the ticket that exploded.”

Adams emerged from the cultural debris of post-industrial America on a mission to write music that touched deep emotions, fully embodied rather than selectively cerebral in nature. At first he pursued a busy freelance career as a clarinettist, deputising with the Boston Symphony and Boston Opera Company; he also conducted the city’s Bach Society Orchestra. His outlook changed when he moved to San Francisco to become head of the composition department at the city’s Conservatory of Music. He served on the faculty there from 1972-83, and was music adviser and composer-in-residence to the San Francisco Symphony from 1978-85, inaugurating the orchestra’s acclaimed ‘New and Unusual Music Series’ in 1978. As a student Adams opened to the influence of John Cage, to the sage West Coast composer’s understanding of the fundamental position of chance and uncertainty in life and in art, and to his embrace of Buddhist insights into interconnection, insubstantiality and impermanence.

Adams’s Violin Concerto, written in 1992-93 to satisfy a joint commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and New York City Ballet, explores aspects of interconnection and impermanence within the framing context of the instrumental concerto’s traditional three-movement form, fast-slow-fast in structure. For all its virtuosity and physical intensity, the work is at heart a meditation on change. This concerto, the composer explains, has no place for agon, the ancient Greek notion of contest or struggle; rather, the violin makes its way unimpeded through the body of the orchestra. “The solo voice is almost never ending,” observes Adams, “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. Above it, against it, below it, even through it, the violin weaves its virtually endless garland of melody, there is no traditional agon between the soloist and orchestra. Instead the violin is permanently at centre stage, the rare instances when it does not play feeling more like pauses for breath or articulations in the music’s architecture.”

Adams coined the term ‘hypermelody’ for his concerto’s solo violin part, mining the Greek lexicon to find an apt description for its near-obsessive excess and extreme physicality. The work opens with an expansive first movement, rhapsodic and sufficiently introspective in character to be open to an endless parade of emotions, moods and changing states of consciousness. Ancient archetypes, those of the early Italian concerto, serve Adams well in the concerto’s second and third movements, offering the structural security of a chaconne for the former and bringing the improvisatory spirit of a toccata to the latter. “The title of the second movement, ‘Body through which the dream flows’, from a poem by [the Californian poet] Robert Hass, provides an image for the entire concerto,” the composer observes: “the orchestra as the organised, delicately articulated mass of blood, tissues and bone; the violin as the dream that flows through it.” Adams subjects his chaconne’s eight-bar bass line to multiple melodic and modal permutations, some of them suggested by the algorithms of a music software package, others by the composer’s fertile imagination. The rushing scales, sequential repetitions and rhythmic iterations of ‘Toccare’ complement the title’s invitation ‘to touch’, in the verb’s emotional as well as its physical sense.

from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2016

Recordings

Harris & Adams: Violin Concertos
Studio Master: SIGCD468Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: [untitled]
Movement 2: Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows
Movement 3: Toccare

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