MUSIC : The High Road to Ojai : Composer John Adams, music director of 47th annual Ojai Festival, is making music with a new partner . . . a mouse

<i> John Henken writes about classical music for Calendar</i>

The room: a second-story aerie in the Oakland Hills with a panoramic view of the East Bay.

The furnishings: five keyboards, Yamaha’s newest and best; a Macintosh with a big monitor; a rack of samplers and other dedicated musical electronica, and a large mixing board.

The inhabitant: John Adams, composer, conductor, intellectual populist, reluctant controversialist and family man--not necessarily in that order. His latest credit: music director of the three-day 47th Ojai Festival, which begins Friday.

Noticeably grayer after weathering the lingering hype and controversy surrounding his second grand opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” Adams is still an affable host, quite patient with the demands of publicity, although this interview has a firm time limit: Adams has promised to take his son fishing later.


The initial greeting courtesies dispensed, Adams moves with enthusiasm to the computer. A click on the mouse, and the room fills with a synthesized sketch of his current project, his first concerto, for violin and orchestra.

“That’s actually an interesting commission, because it’s commissioned by three organizations. I wanted to spend a lot of time on this piece, so I needed to get enough of a commission to live on for a while,” Adams says. “I managed to get three groups that are sufficiently disassociated with each other so that it wouldn’t conflict.”

Those groups are the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony and the New York City Ballet. The latter will use the piece for choreography by Peter Martins. The concerto’s premiere will be Sept. 23 in Minnesota, Edo de Waart conducting with the solo entrusted to the concertmaster, Jorja Fleezanis. Both are old friends and colleagues of Adams from their days with the San Francisco Symphony.

“She is a great person to be collaborating with,” Adams says of the violinist, “because no great violin concerto has been written without intense participation on the part of the sacrificial lamb.”

The concerto also reveals much about the state of Adams’ constantly evolving art. Here the composer seems to be moving away from the traditional scales of Western tonality, a basic assumption of the West Coast minimalism for which Adams has been perhaps the most visible whipping boy.

Instead, Adams has created a series of original scales, which he has named after Nicolas Slonimsky, the musical polymath and author of the seminal “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.” Through software maps he can simply click and let the computer shuffle intervals from one arrangement to another.


The effect, as experienced in this brief preview, is exotic and subversively bent, driven by the pulse power so characteristic of Adams’ music, now developed in rhythmic layers of increasing complexity.

For all of that, the origins of this concerto are surprisingly down-to-earth--violin lessons shared with his daughter, Emily, 9, in the collaborative parent/child style of the Suzuki system.

“I got interested in the violin mostly because I’ve been practicing with my daughter for four years now,” Adams says. “I feel very confident about the violin now in a way that I didn’t, and I love it--I hear it every day--so it seemed natural to want to do a violin concerto.”

A similarly domestic epiphany also inspired Adams’ Chamber Symphony, his latest completed work. The composer was in his upstairs studio, studying Schoenberg’s Opus 9 Chamber Symphony, while his son, Sam, 7, was watching cartoons downstairs on television. Somehow, the hyperactivity of both proved a complementary stimulus.

“Obviously, because of its title, it bears distinct resemblance to, and pays homage to, the eponymous Chamber Symphony by Schoenberg, which I’ve conducted many times,” Adams says. “What it was about the Schoenberg that attracted me was its extreme hyperactivity, that there are 15 players all playing like virtuoso soloists, coming at you all the time.

“So I did a John Adams version of it, which has a trap set going, a cowbell thwacking all during the first movement, and synthesizer--although the actual instrumentation, except for trap set and synthesizer, is almost exactly the same as the Schoenberg, so it makes some very, very funny parallels with it.


“It’s also--by far--the most virtuoso and difficult piece I’ve ever written. I’ve performed it already in Holland, in London, and then it’s been done here in San Francisco, and I’m about to go on tour with it in Europe with the Ensemble Modern. The Cleveland Orchestra is doing it next year, which I think is very imaginative of them, to open a program with a work for 15 instruments.”

The 22-minute work is cast in three movements: “Mongrel Airs,” “Aria With Walking Bass” and “Roadrunner.” Largely favorable reviews, noting the evolutionary characteristics of the Chamber Symphony, have followed in its international wake. Adams has just completed a recording of it for Nonesuch with the London Sinfonietta, with a new version of his “Grand Pianola Music.”

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have also scheduled the work for performance next season. Closer to home, however, the piece gets its local premiere Saturday afternoon at the Ojai Festival, where Adams is sharing the programming duties this year with artistic director Ara Guzelimian (who is also the outgoing artistic administrator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and about to take on a similar position at the Aspen Music Festival).

Founded in 1947--the year Adams was born--the Ojai Festival has been almost a counter-festival bastion of musical adventure, something not lost on Adams.

“The Ojai Festival is unique in that it’s always focused on living composers and has a tradition of composer-conductors,” he notes. “It’s interesting, because the other music festival that I have been guest director of is the Cabrillo Festival, also in California. When you think of it, those two California music festivals are the only music festivals in the country that tilt toward contemporary music.

“Most music festivals are money-making, very market-conscious enterprises. Tanglewood, Ravinia, Hollywood Bowl, are means by which an orchestra can make a great deal of money with a very small amount of rehearsal.


“Ojai is very different, of course. It’s really predicated upon the notion of a very intelligent, musically aware audience that is interested in hearing unusual works.”

Which is not to say that Ojai is without its budget and time constraints. When Adams conducted the Schoenberg Ensemble in the premiere of his Chamber Symphony, on the program were arrangements by Ivar Mikhashoff of some of Conlon Nancarrow’s famous player-piano pieces, music that will not be heard at Ojai.

“They’re fabulous pieces, which I’m hoping to do down in the L.A. area at some point,” Adams says. “I was hoping to do them at Ojai, but they take so much rehearsal time.”

And as with those other, more mainstream festivals, most of the events at Ojai are outdoors in Libbey Bowl. That was Adams’ first consideration in planning repertory for the festival this year.

“More and more these days, I seem to end up doing the wrong piece in the wrong hall, whether it’s in Europe or here,” Adams sighs. “And not necessarily just myself. I attend concerts where too small a piece is done in too big a hall, or vice versa.

“So I’ve become very sensitive to the location of where music is heard. I was aware that almost all these concerts would be outdoors, at this Libbey Bowl, which is festive, but not in any way an environment where a kind of intimate music that demands a very resonant space could be a success.


“For example, Arvo Part I think would be a disaster at Libbey Bowl,” Adams says. “I know there has been a lot of Debussy done there in the past, but I wonder how successful that is.

“I thought of music that is essentially very colorful, rhythmic and, I suppose one could say, extrovert--music that would succeed outdoors.”

Into that category falls the new Chamber Symphony. Adams has matched it with the “Homenaje a Garcia Lorca” by Revueltas, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 1, and Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny” Songspiel .

“I think it is an appropriate piece for Ojai,” Adams says. “I think it fits very well; in fact, I built the program around it, because both the ‘Mahagonny’ and the Shostakovich share with it a certain fauvist quality--or I should say the other way around, my piece shares it with them. There are what one might call populist elements in all of these pieces, including the Revueltas. So I think that program has a very wonderful, unified quality to it.”

At first, Adams disavows any similar thematic unification of the festival as a whole, which begins Friday with a concert by the Kronos Quartet, and includes anhomage to the late John Cage on Saturday.

“I wouldn’t say that there is an overarching theme to the entire festival,” Adams says, “although I know that themes are very much ‘in’ these days as a marketing tool. I’m more interested in a unified theme for a program itself.

“For example, Paul Crossley’s program (a solo piano recital next Sunday morning) is very unified,” Adams says. “There’s Ravel, Takemitsu, Debussy--and even my Opus 1 ‘Phrygian Gates’ is a piece with great debt to both Debussy and Messiaen with that kind of coloristic writing.”


After a moment comparing the festival finale next Sunday afternoon--which lists Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (with Crossley) and Adams’ “Grand Pianola Music”--with the Saturday Revueltas-Adams-Shostakovich-Weill program, however, the music director reverses course.

“I guess there is a lot of jazz influence in these two programs. Actually, when you mention it,” he says, with an air of discovery, “when we look at Ravel, here’s a Frenchman; Copland, here’s a guy from Brooklyn whose two big influences in life were jazz and Stravinsky; Revueltas, a Mexican; Adams, a Californian by way of Massachusetts; Shostakovich, a Russian; and Kurt Weill, a German Jew--all viewing jazz, or popular music, in one way or another.

“So I guess that probably is a strong theme in the festival,” Adams says. “I also would say there is no doubt about the fact that this festival was made by an American programmer!”

The question of whether American--or other--composers should be similarly identifiable by their work has been in the air again. Not surprisingly, Adams comes down emphatically in favor of discernible characteristics of time and place.

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “J. S. Bach to me just perfectly represents that Lutheran Zeitgeist . I was reading this book by Harnoncourt about Monteverdi, and he was saying how just quintessentially Italian Monteverdi is.

“I think the best American music does share very common characteristics, rhythmically, harmonically, and especially in its linkage to popular culture, because popular culture is sort of an American invention, in a way.”


And Adams’ music--especially in its linkage to popular culture--seems quintessentially American. Kurt Masur began his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1991 with a nationally televised program. He clearly intended to send a message about past/present, Old World/ New World linkages, starting with Adams’ fanfares “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and “Tromba lontana,” some of Copland’s “Old American Songs,” and ending with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

“And he created one of the world’s worst programs,” Adams said with a laugh. “I think after that evening, after his encounter with ‘Short Ride,’ he decided to get off the John Adams surfboard.

“I think he had no idea how hard it was. He looked on television absolutely terrified. I’ve since not heard from him. He was calling me quite often up to that point.

“I wrote that piece for Michael Tilson Thomas. It’s the sort of thing that a certain kind of conductor--mostly American--can handle, with that kind of incredible rhythmic drive and constant shifting of meters. You know, somebody like Michael, Dennis Davies; Hugh Wolff does it a lot.

“It’s that kind of piece,” Adams repeats. “German conductors, who are not trained in that kind of rhythmic precision, have a really rough time of it. They tend to trip over it.”

Ironically, Adams may need the help of German conductors. He has more performances in Europe now than in this country.


“I never thought that would happen to me,” Adams says, in clearly hurt disbelief.

He was very upset when Los Angeles Music Center Opera dropped “The Death of Klinghoffer” from its plans for the coming season--without a word to him--and in a repertory shuffle Lyric Opera of Chicago has also broken off tentative consideration of a 10-performance “Nixon in China” run on its “Towards the 21st Century” project.

Even the long-awaited laser disc of “Nixon” has become a will-o’-the-wisp.

“There was some marketing issue between Decca and the Houston Grand Opera that could never be consummated,” Adams says.

“It is truly a great irony that these two operas are having such trouble getting produced in this country. They were both called trendy by certain people when they first came out, but you know, if I were a filmmaker like Oliver Stone, or a novelist like Thomas Pynchon, no one would criticize me for using these topics.

“But in opera it’s unheard of, so the natural way of bashing the opera is to say, ‘Oh, well, Adams just picks trendy subjects to get people’s attention.’ But the irony is that the great strength of these operas is in their real relevance to contemporary life.”

Given the travails of “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer,” it is not surprising to hear that Adams is thinking in smaller, more practical terms for his next opera. It will be more a dramatic song-cycle, perhaps something Brechtian in a longish one act of about 90 minutes, and presentable with limited staging by orchestras as well as opera companies.

Also, given the widely reported rifts over everything from timely delivery of the libretto to use of supertitles that occurred between Adams and Alice Goodman, his librettist for “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer,” it should surprise no one that the composer is rather vague about his plans for a libretto for his next opera--other than not turning to Goodman again.

“I think that after ‘Klinghoffer’ we badly needed to take a vacation from each other for six or seven--or 10 or 15--years or so,” Adams laughs.


Director Peter Sellars was usually the mediator in the Adams-Goodman disputes, but composer and director have also had their differences. Several productions in Europe of “Nixon” from directors other than Sellars have taken the sting out of the frequent careless references to “Peter Sellars’ ‘Nixon in China,’ ” but Sellars’ glib reported explanation that Adams set tempos too fast in “Klinghoffer” because he was embarrassed about the lush beauty of his music still ruffles feathers.

“You see, this is in the true opera director’s tradition, which is that if the music isn’t at the tempo that the director wants it at, it’s because the composer didn’t know what he was doing,” Adams snorts. “Then that gives the justification to all sorts of perversions of the composer’s desire.

“But I must say that despite constant arguments over tempi, Peter is clearly the most musically sensitive mind in the business of operatic direction. He has great depth of understanding for music.”

That said, Adams still feels very ambivalent about Sellars’ silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez,” which was televised nationally on PBS in March. The film uses Adams’ “Harmonielehre,” with interpolated Tibetan chant, as inspiration and score.

“I saw a rough cut of it, about 1990, but I haven’t seen it since then,” Adams says. “I had extremely mixed feelings about it when I saw it. It was difficult for me to have a coherent feeling about the picture itself. I think I would have to see it several times.”

“The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez” was originally scheduled to premiere at Hollywood Bowl during the 1990 Los Angeles Festival. When it wasn’t ready, Sellars forced “Harmonielehre” to serve as soundtrack to the classic silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” by the blithe expedient of repeating the first movement between the second and third. That, Adams didn’t want to see even once.


“I wonder what that says about the music,” the composer remarks of the Hollywood Bowl performance. “I made it a point to be someplace else that night.”

In the giddy days following the first performances of “Klinghoffer,” the possibility that Adams’ next opera was destined for Salzburg was much bruited. Gerard Mortier was general director of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, where “The Death of Klinghoffer” had its premiere. He has since moved on to Salzburg, and reportedly asked Adams to write his third opera for the Austrian festival.

That, the composer says, is more “hot air.”

“I’ve been approached to write another grand opera by several companies, but I’m just not interested in it,” Adams says. “It’s also really a problem for me to contemplate doing another orchestra piece. I do have several outstanding commitments, including one to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“I will write the piece when I get the idea, but what I really loathe about the climate these days is that so many composers are taking orchestra commissions simply because it’s an orchestra commission, and all these pieces that don’t really have a reason for existing are littering the landscape. They get played once, and they get never played again. I think a composer should write what wants to be written.

“In my case, I’ve just finished a 50-minute album that I made entirely in my studio upstairs, all synthesizers and samplers,” Adams says proudly. “I worked on it for a year, and that’s what really interested me at the moment. It was inspired by late Beatles albums, in that it’s a set of small pieces that go between three and 10 minutes, but there is a kind of unity, an ambience that all the pieces share.”

It isn’t, however, coming out in June, as Adams anticipated back at the end of April. Nonesuch reports great enthusiasm for the project, but says it just got the master last week, and the album doesn’t even have a working title yet.


Despite the problems with keeping “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer” on American stages, Adams seems still on his remarkable roll. There are other, less material standards, of course, but how’s this for a measure of success in the more worldly aspects of the composition game: Adams has already received his first commission for the next millennium . . . and turned it down.

“The Cleveland Orchestra wanted me to do a big piece for New Year’s Eve 1999. It would start at 11 p.m. and end at 1 a.m., Jan. 1, 2000,” Adams says, “but my wife refuses to spend New Year’s Eve of the millennium in Cleveland. I think she wants to be out on a mountain top somewhere.”