A short ride with a fast composer

In the next three days London will hear a 23-year retrospective of the often controversial work of John Adams. 'The most complete overview imaginable squeezed into a weekend,' he tells Martin Anderson
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Politics is the stuff of opera. Take almost any operatic plot you like and, behind the front-stage love intrigue, you'll find tales of warring dynasties, escape from oppression, competing personal and institutional loyalties – the sort of thing that fills the news pages of any paper you pick up. But opera isn't supposed itself to generate political controversy, unless you're objecting to the amount of subsidy it receives. Yet when The Death of Klinghoffer, by American composer John Adams, is given its UK premiere in the Barbican this evening, it comes prefaced with claim and counter-claim – there's even some fear of demonstrations in the hall.

The Death of Klinghoffer began raising hackles with its first performance, in 1991. Alice Goodman's libretto is based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent murder of a disabled Jewish holiday-maker, Leon Klinghoffer. The charge was that Goodman and Adams, attempting to examine the terrorists' motivation, had glamorized them and, by the same token, had put an anti-Semitic slant on the portrayal of the Jewish tourists. The row was reignited last autumn in the wake of the 11 September inferno, when the Boston Symphony Chorus, about to sing the choruses from Klinghoffer in concert, cancelled the performance in deference to one of its members – she had lost a close relative in the terrorist attacks. A decent and unexceptionably humane gesture, you might think, but its purpose was lost in the brouhaha that followed. Adams's supporters shouted about censorship and artistic freedom, while his critics adopted a serve-you-right smugness, not least when Richard Taruskin, the dyspeptic, self-appointed dean of American musicology wrote a lengthy article in The New York Times, attacking Adams and calling for the banning of his opera.

Adams, 55 next month and the mildest of men, sees Taruskin's intolerant onslaught as part of the black-and-white polarisation of morality in American since 11 September: "The fundamental message [of Taruskin's article] was that there is some music that is so evil it should be controlled, it should be suppressed; that performing organisations should exercise restraint and prevent a work like Klinghoffer from being heard. It's very interesting that this article appeared in The New York Times in the same week that our Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, went before the Senate, to argue on behalf of rolling back many of our hard-won civil rights in our country, and said in course of his testimony that any senator or congressman that did not agree with him was in effect aiding the enemy.

"I don't deny that I've given poignancy and a tragic sense to some of the terrorists' utterances. What truly incenses [Taruskin] is the opening chorus of exiled Palestinians, where I set it to a music that has a timeless, elegiac quality to it. His argument is that, c'mon, these are terrorists, they're suicide bombers, you can't treat them any other way than as simply evil. I feel that's the pathological problem that we're in in the world right now, that no matter how twisted someone may be, we still have to look at what makes him that way. Of course, that's the classic liberal impulse, which is very much frowned upon in this country."

Adams is begging the question: can – should – music humanize the murderous actions of terrorists, if only by trying to account for them? One might reasonably argue that by drawing attention to the plight of the Palestinians who are caught between a venal and corrupt administration with a weak leader and a violent guerrilla movement as its only apparent alternative, Adams is throwing some light on the issue, even hinting at possible solutions. "I don't what to start stepping into areas where I am not well armed with facts, but I would say that I am in complete defence of my work – I think that it is a very humane work. I absolutely, violently disagree with any implication that I ridicule Jews in this work. The second chorus in the work is the chorus of exiled Jews, which is even more emotionally committed than anything else in the opera."

The Death of Klinghoffer forms the opening evening in this year's Composer Weekend run by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican. To be selected for one of these weekends is one of the most signal honours the British musical establishment can bestow: three days of symphonic and chamber concerts, talks, other supporting events (films, open rehearsals, peripheral concerts) – and since the concerts are broadcast on Radio 3, it's about the most intensive exposure any composer can have to a British audience. It can change the way you listen: I thought I knew and admired Alfred Schnittke's music, but after last year's Schnittke weekend, I came away from the Barbican with the realisation that, even as an enthusiast, I had misjudged several of his works; my understanding had been deepened.

The idea for the Composer Weekends began in 1985 with a series of concerts dedicated to the music of Stockhausen. The BBC then went dormant for two years while it thought more about it. In 1988 it erupted with Birtwistle, and Boulez the next year. It has continued ever since, with a flow of many of the major names in 20th-century music, in a refreshingly catholic range of styles: Berio, Henze, Berg, Janácek, Tavener, Hindemith, Ives, Lutoslawski, Martinu, Messiaen, Weill. Mark-Anthony Turnage is scheduled for next year, and 2005 will mark the Tippett centenary. Adams is in good company.

The music we'll hear covers a period of no less than 23 years: from Shaker Loops of 1978 (Sunday afternoon) to the new orchestral work Guide to Strange Places, finished only this autumn (to be premiered on Sunday evening) – "with the exception of [Adams's 1987 opera] Nixon in China and one or two other pieces, it's just about the most complete overview of my work imaginable to be squeezed into a single weekend," the composer reports, a mix of incredulity and gratitude audible in his soft-spoken, New England accent.

Adams's background, he explains, has had a considerable bearing on his style: "I was brought up in a family that had strong connections to jazz and American popular music: my mother was a very gifted actress who sang in amateur productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific and Carousel; my father had played clarinet and saxophone in big bands during the Thirties and Forties. That was a major element in my musical upbringing, although my parents were very adamant that I have a very well-grounded classical music education.

"Another critical aspect of my birthright was the fact that during my most impressionable years, during the Sixties, there was this wonderful explosion of pop music in the United States, starting with the Beatles and going up all the way to the early Seventies. That profoundly affected my attitude towards the musical experience, and when it came to having to confront the accepted canon of the time – which, of course, was post-Webernian, twelve-tone, European avant-garde music – I came to that with this other experience, which to me seemed much fresher, much more real, much more meaningful." Up against hard-core serialism as a student at Harvard, Adams took drastic action: "My ultimate impulse was to remove myself physically, which in my case meant driving across the country to get even further away and coming to California, where I felt the ideology was not so oppressive."

Adams took refuge from avant-gardism at the other end of the stylistic spectrum. "It's very obvious in my early works that minimalism had a huge effect on me and helped formed the fundamental syntax of my language, and it's still there as a fundamental organisational principle. But I've never been a rigorous practitioner of the style, because I felt that, while I saw great potential in it, it was also a very limited mode of expression. Even with as early a piece as Shaker Loops, I was trying to push the envelope and create a language that was more expressive and more – what shall I say? – volatile."

Adams thinks on a symphonic scale that might not seem to lend itself to a minimalist manner; indeed, one wonders whether in some works – like the Violin Concerto of 1993 (being performed on Sunday evening) – the structure demands more than the style can deliver. "The first movement of the Violin Concerto represents a movement that started in The Death of Klinghoffer towards a much more chromatic language, and I think I went about as far as I want to go in the Violin Concerto. You can actually hear a kind of stylistic crisis right there, in that piece, between the first movement and the last movement – it's interesting when a piece of art can reveal its own creator's change of heart!"

Hans Keller defined the symphony as the large-scale integration of contrasts, and I have to admit to Adams that's what I miss in his larger works – the big sonata-form articulations that bring the structural drama to symphonic form. His response is calm: "That's interesting – I haven't heard that criticism often. I've heard many other criticisms, but not one of a lack of contrast; in fact, I've been excoriated on numerous occasions by minimalist purists who felt that I've tarted up their pure and rigorous language with too many theatrical contrasts. I would be surprised if you came away from a piece like Harmonielehre or Slonimsky's Earbox [both to be performed on Saturday evening] or Klinghoffer, for that matter, feeling there had been a lack of contrast. Maybe hearing those things live will be better."

In one aspect of his music, at least, Adams is an unarguable master: his sense of orchestral colour. His scores often have a Mexican-blanket vividness that flashes with warmth and points of light. How does he find the right instrumental combinations? "I don't know! Colours are such an integral part of the original musical impetus that I can't talk about them as something separate." So the musical ideas arrive in his mind already "pre-clothed" in their sounds? "Usually – not always. I'm a conductor, and I've grown up first playing in orchestras and later standing in front of them, so I think orchestrally the way a Spanish writer thinks in Spanish. It's so unconscious for me that I couldn't even consider standing apart from something and saying: 'This is a pure pitch and this is the way I am dressing it'."

Before talking to Adams, I had been listening to El Niño, his Christmas oratorio, released on a two-CD set last autumn by Nonesuch (7559-79634-2), and had been startled by the originality and effectiveness of the orchestration. And yet, when I had gone go back to listen more closely to the sounds he had created, I couldn't imagine them any other way. "Well, good – I couldn't hear a more welcome comment!"

BBC Radio 3's extensive coverage of the Composer Weekend includes the UK premiere of 'The Death of Klinghoffer' which will be broadcast live tonight at 6.50pm. A concert conducted by the composer, including the UK premiere of his 'Guide to Strange Places' will be broadcast live on both Radio 3 and BBC Knowledge on Sunday at 8pm. Full details on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/johnadams.shtml and www.earbox.com