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John Adams conducts Klinghoffer at Juilliard on Jan 31

John Adams Comes into Focus at Juilliard Opera Center’s Festival, “FOCUS! 2009 California: A Century of New Music”, Conducting The Death of Klinghoffer on Jan 31, Two Days After World Premiere of His New String Quartet

John Adams will conduct a single, semi-staged performance of his 1990-91 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, in New York on January 31, as the focal point and finale of the Juilliard School’s festival, “FOCUS! 2009 California: A Century of New Music”. A further “FOCUS!” festival highlight is the world premiere of his String Quartet No. 2 at Juilliard on January 29, by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Adams will also participate in a panel discussion with other composers at the “FOCUS!” festival (Jan 27) and in a one-on-one interview (Jan 29) at the school.

Adams received an Opera News Award in New York in November, and Klinghoffer is the second of his operas to be presented in the city this season; his Doctor Atomic was one of the Metropolitan Opera’s great successes this fall, when it was conducted by Alan Gilbert and selected as a Met: Live in HD transmission to international cinemas. The new quartet is Adams’s second full-length work in the form, and is a joint commission by Juilliard, Stanford University’s Lively Arts, and the Banff Centre, expressly for the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Background and critical reaction to The Death of Klinghoffer

The news that John Adams is returning to New York to conduct The Death of Klinghoffer is of particular interest because the controversial opera has not been heard in the U.S. since 1992. Klinghoffer was a five-fold commission by organizations in Brussels, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Glyndebourne, and Los Angeles. The 1990 Brussels premiere was covered widely, not only because of John Adams’s reputation as a composer, but because of the work’s controversial story-line, a fictionalized account of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the cold-blooded murder of an elderly, disabled, Jewish passenger. Troubles in the Mideast were ongoing then, as now, and some found the subject matter and its presentation distasteful, even anti-Semitic.

The Brussels premiere was followed by a successful staging at San Francisco Opera, but later performances planned for Los Angeles were cancelled, and The Death of Klinghoffer has not been performed in the U.S. in more than 16 years. The January 31 performance at Juilliard will be the first in Manhattan.

The New York Times review of the Brussels premiere stated:

“The Death of Klinghoffer transmutes contemporary history into operatic poetry … . The opera attained its finest depths of feeling in the two final scenes for Mrs. Klinghoffer – the first in which she heartbreakingly doesn’t yet know that her husband has been shot and the second a bitter denunciation of what she sees as the Captain’s complicity – and Klinghoffer’s farewell, an astonishing ‘Aria of the Fallen Body’ set in the score as a gymnopedie, or slow, hypnotic dance.”

For a British TV production of The Death of Klinghoffer in 2003, John Adams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Directed by Penny Woolcock (who also directed the Met’s Doctor Atomic), the film is now available on DVD. The production was commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 and filmed aboard a cruise ship on location in the Mediterranean, with the singers performing live to a pre-recorded orchestral soundtrack.

John Rockwell, who posted the New York Times review from Brussels, also assessed the film. He recalled the comments of some of his colleagues after the premiere, including one in the Wall Street Journal, according to which the opera “turns the sport-killing of a frail old Jew in a wheelchair into a cool meditation on meaning and myth, life, and death … without a penny of subsidy from the P.L.O.” By contrast, Rockwell went on to sum up his own view of the opera and the film:

“As often happens to an artwork with a few highly-placed, highly-impassioned opponents, Klinghoffer has found its way onto the world’s operatic stages much more slowly than did its acclaimed predecessor, Nixon in China. The new film isn’t doing much better: it has no scheduled theatrical or television distribution in the United States. Still, the opera’s champions are undaunted. …

“In the end Klinghoffer is not anti-American or antibourgeois or anti-Semitic but pro-human. It shows unequivocally that murder is nothing more than that, vicious and unconscionable. To see the opera or the film otherwise, it seems to me, is to be swept up in the very tribal hatreds the opera so eloquently deplores.”

Having vetoed the planned staged production, Los Angeles nevertheless screened the 2003 film even though it wasn’t locally produced; the Los Angeles Times’s music critic called it “brilliant, morally courageous, and overwhelmingly moving.”

John Adams’s other spring engagements:

Adams has conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony several times this season as the orchestra’s 2008-09 Composer of the Year. The early spring sees his return to Pittsburgh for the second of his seasonal appearances; he conducts the orchestra in Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6, and violinist Leila Josefowicz joins the ensemble for Adams’s Dharma at Big Sur, which she has recorded (March 13, 15).

In May, Adams will visit Los Angeles as composer, conductor, and author. In his first appearance, he leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in a “Green Umbrella” concert featuring Son of Chamber Symphony (May 12), and two days later he appears at LA Central Library for a discussion of his memoir, Hallelujah Junction (May 14). He returns to the LA Phil to conduct two performances of his most recent opera, A Flowering Tree, on May 15 and 17. Meanwhile, the St. Lawrence String Quartet gives the West Coast premiere of his String Quartet No. 2 at Stanford Lively Arts on April 5.

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Selected performances of music by John Adams in early 2009:

January 29
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard School, New York NY
St. Lawrence String Quartet
John Adams: String Quartet No. 2 (world premiere)

January 31
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard School, New York NY
Juilliard Orchestra and the Juilliard Opera Center
The Death of Klinghoffer (Manhattan premiere)
John Adams, composer and conductor
Libretto by Alice Goodman

March 13, 15
Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh PA
Pittsburgh Symphony / John Adams, conductor
John Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur (with Leila Josefowicz, violin)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6

April 5
Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford, California
St. Lawrence String Quartet
John Adams: String Quartet No. 2 (West Coast premiere)
Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2
Dvorák: String Quartet in G major, Op. 106

May 12
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California
LA Philharmonic New Music Group / John Adams, conductor
Timothy Andres: How can I live in your world of ideas?; new work
Payton MacDonald: Cowboy Tabla/Cowboy Raga for percussion and chamber orchestra
John Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony

May 15, 17
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles Philharmonic / John Adams, conductor
Adams: A Flowering Tree

John Adams’s website is

– January 27, 2009

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