Leave it to Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony to deliver one of the more impressive classical discs of 1999: a pairing of the violin concertos of John Adams and Philip Glass. Hearing the works of these two American music mavericks side-by-side is a study in contrasts: Adams's postmodernist composition from 1993 is filled with spooky overtones, as the violin threads its way through the piece, always at the forefront.
You'd get differing answers to the question of whether John Adams is America's greatest living composer, but he's the one to whom the country turned in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The demand for new work from him has only increased since he achieved senior citizen status. Fortunately, he's been able to meet that demand with distinctive large-scale works. Consider 2016's Scheherazade.2, recorded here by the violinist who premiered the work, Leila Josefowicz, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson. The piece succeeds on several levels. It is, outwardly, as close as Adams has come to writing a big Romantic violin concerto, and it will no doubt be welcomed into the concert repertory as such. Yet go into it more deeply, and it seems less a concerto than – well, what, exactly? Adams calls it a "dramatic symphony." English critic Nick Breckenfield has compared it to Berlioz's Harold in Italy, with the soloist representing an individual making her way through a series of adventures that may have a threatening tinge.
Having earned his composing stripes after the 1960s, John Adams had the pioneering work of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley close at hand as he ventured into his trade. And, while minimalism's historical continuum helps place Adams, he used Reich, Glass, and Riley (among others) only as a starting point. And here's proof: a 10-CD retrospective of nearly all Adams's recorded compositions on Nonesuch Records, the label that also issued Steve Reich 1965-1995 and Kronos Quartet: 25 Years. Adams's Harmonium, a choral work of startling energy and effervescence, appears here in a new recording, as do distillations of both The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China, two path-clearing operas.
John Adams is the living composer who is most widely performed today. This visually rich portrait of the composer by award-winning film maker Mark Kidel explores the influences that have shaped Adams's unique music, from minimalism to jazz and from the Indian raga to the European classical tradition.