John Adams Focus Barbican Centre, until 25th March, Tel: 0845 120 7500
John Adams is that rare thing, a living composer whose work has struck a chord with audiences well beyond the borders of the “new music” world. One reason for Adams’s eminence is that he spurns the fastidious “apolitical” stance of most composers and tackles big and often contentious themes. This five-concert series at the Barbican in London includes one of them: a symphony drawn from his most recent opera, Dr Atomic, which examines the agonised self-questioning of Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the team that created the first atomic bomb.
But there are more straightforward reasons for Adams’s rise to being the best-known “classical” composer worldwide. One is that he brings back the richly expressive harmonic palette which had long been absent from new music. Another is that his music pulsates with the rhythmic energy of American popular music, filtered through the interlocking patterns of minimalism. Together these create an inimitable relaxed energy and a sense of large spaces unfolding, like a drive down a Californian interstate in sound.
This series includes his latest orchestral score, City Noir, which brilliantly evokes the nocturnal menace and glamour of film noir, plus the British premieres of two new chamber works.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 edition of Prospect