john-adams“I think the creative drive is a very powerful thing if you have it. Part of it’s just a measure of your own growth, your own spiritual growth, your intellectual growth. Part of it is just ego. You’re like an athlete or anybody who wants to accomplish something in life, you don’t want to be told, “Well, it’s time to hang up your gloves and just enjoy life.” We’re all driven to keep on going.” –John Adams

At age 70, composer John Adams shows no signs of slowing down. Early next month, he’s conducting performances of his seminal 1987 opera Nixon in China at the LA Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall. He’s currently finishing his most recent opera, The Girls of the Golden West, which will be premiered at San Francisco Opera in November.  As topical as ever, Adams says that opera will approach race relations, women’s rights, and ‘fake news.’

Adams is consistently (this year included) the most frequently performed living composer by American orchestras. On this, his 70th birthday, here are some of the KUSC staff’s picks of Adams’ essential work.

Harmonielehre (Brian): This 40-minute work for large orchestra is what got me hooked, not just on Adams’ music, but on contemporary music in general. I went to a performance of it by the Atlanta Symphony because there was something else on the program that I wanted to hear and I thought, well, I’ll just give this Adams thing a chance. Little did I know that I would be literally blown away by the music. (Be sure to listen to the last couple of minutes of the piece, which are just spectacular!)

Harmonium (Alan): Similar title, but a different piece. In this work, Adams sets poetry by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. I found it exciting on first hearing and it continues to be a favorite.

Grand Pianola Music (Gail): An open-hearted, glorious calling card proclaiming independence from the serialism and hyper-seriousness of the mid-to-late 20th century in concert music

Scheherazade.2 (Brian): A feminist update to the story, famously set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov, of Scheherazade that focuses on the strength and resiliency of the woman, rather than her cleverness and ability to keep entertaining her warped, murderous husband.

Slonimsky’s Earbox (Alan): A colorful tribute to a colorful and witty musical personality, Nicolas Slonimsky.

“Batter My Heart” from Doctor Atomic (Gail): Set to the poetry of John Donne and maybe our greatest 21st century opera aria so far.

John’s Book of Alleged Dances (Brian): Composed in 1994 for the Kronos Quartet, this set of 10 short dances is a total blast. Adams says they are “alleged” because “the steps for them had yet to be invented.” My favorites are “Pavane: She’s So Fine,” “Rag the Bone,” and “Alligator Escalator.”

On the Transmigration of Souls (Alan): A chilling piece in memory of 9/11 that includes the recitation of the names of victims and texts from signs that were posted around Ground Zero.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Gail): I was lucky enough to hear it live twice, in L.A. and Paris. Its poignancy and uncanny vocal, choral and orchestral textures are unforgettable.

You can also listen to these pieces as a playlist below:

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