John Luther Adams, Lauded and Played at Columbia

10.09.15
The New York Times

John Luther Adams spent the early decades of his career in relative obscurity — evidently a contented recluse, working out of a cabin or a studio in Alaska but issuing a steady trickle of recordings. Now 62, he lives in New York, and recent years have brought him celebrity and awards aplenty.

He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and a Grammy in February, both for his orchestral work “Become Ocean.” And on Wednesday, he accepted the William Schuman Award, given periodically for lifetime achievement, from the Columbia University School of the Arts.

Along with a $50,000 grant, the award included a three-concert series at the Miller Theater, presenting a trilogy of Mr. Adams’s works, all in their New York premieres. The first took place on Wednesday, with the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Steven Schick, and the JACK Quartet performing “Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing,” a piece begun in response to the death of Mr. Adams’s father in 1991 and completed in 1995.

The other works are “for Lou Harrison” (2004), honoring Mr. Adams’s longtime compositional mentor, to be performed on Friday, and “In the White Silence” (1998), a tribute to Mr. Adams’s mother, set for Saturday.

“Clouds,” running some 70 minutes, unfolds in 19 sections exploring harmonic intervals in a sequence rising from minor second to major seventh. Though most sections are titled more or less technically (“Clouds of Seconds and Thirds,” “Triads Remembered”), the work as a whole has no explicit program. Still, much can be surmised from the circumstances of its creation.

Phrases come like breaths, somewhat expansive at the beginning and surrounded by trilling and warbling, but more constricted as the piece goes on, almost turning into wheezes. This impression is only enhanced by the instrumentation, as the winds dominate in quiet chords spiked with a rasp of dissonance.

The overall emotional arch rises from a placid opening to clamorous climaxes overridden by a shrill piccolo (“Turbulent Changes”). Then the mood falls back, speaking more to resignation than renewal.

But the very end (“Major Sevenths Rising”) is something else again, affording a clear, touching sense of a soul being lifted. The instruments come together, haltingly, in a rising scale, and it soon becomes apparent that they will finish out the octave, leaving only a tolling tinkling bell in their wake.

The Miller series offers Mr. Adams a wonderful opportunity to plant his musical flag in New York, once and for all.

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