Happy Birthday, John Adams!

My favorite contemporary composer turns 75 today, which means that when I started listening to his music, he was younger than I am now. Yikes.

I became aware of the music of John Adams in the summer before my junior year of high school. I was on a twelve-hour road trip to Eastman with Randy Kohlenberg, trombone professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a doctoral student of his who would be giving a presentation at the annual International Trombone Festival (I believe it was still called “Workshop” then). Somewhere north of the Maryland/Pennsylvania line, Randy popped in a CD of some of Adams’s shorter works played by the San Francisco Symphony (wow, you can play a CD in your car?). The Chairman Dances. Common Tones in Simple Time. Short Ride in a Fast Machine. I was hooked. It was a good trip, too. I met Frank Crisafulli on that trip.

When I settled in at Northwestern, I quickly discovered their monumental music library and all the scores I could ever dream of studying—including the charts on the aforementioned CD, plus other treasures I discovered that remain favorites to this day: the choral work Harmonium, the orchestral odyssey Harmonielehre, The Wound Dresser. Every album recorded was to be found in that library, and videos…I would spend hours there beyond what I needed for any school work. By junior year, I finally had the opportunity to play some of his works, Short Ride in particular, and his Chamber Symphony. I had graduated by the time he came to work with Northwestern students as the winner of the Nemmers Prize.

His style has very much changed over the years although elements of the “eighties” John Adams remain in each new work. I’ve been working on the wicked trombone solo from the second movement of his epic City Noir recently just for fun, but I have a long way to go. It’s a good thing the other two trombones join in unison toward the end of this solo; by then my brain is fried and my chops are fried-er. And my phone just got sick of me and stopped recording near the end of this.

There are a few fantastic renditions of this on record. The world premiere performance was given by the L.A. Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, and Jim Miller plays exquisitely. The St. Louis Symphony recorded it for Nonesuch and I think Tim Myers plays the solo. It’s audio-only, so I can’t see! Olaf Ott plays the solo with the Berlin Philharmonic on their Digital Concert Hall.

We get to play John Adams’s Saxophone Concerto with the Winston-Salem Symphony on March 5 & 6 with Branford Marsalis as soloist. Luckily there are no trombones on that piece, so I’ll get a chance to sit out in the hall and listen!

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