Composer John Adams often has described his transformation from born-and-bred New Englander to born-again West Coaster. He finished up a master's degree at Harvard in 1971 and hit the road, just like Kerouac.
A talented clarinetist whose father played alto saxophone in swing bands, Adams drove cross-country in his Volkswagen Beetle and landed a job on the Oakland waterfront as a "lumper," climbing into huge containers to unload goods. He was "quite confused" about where his life was headed, he's said. But Adams, all of 24 years old, lucked into a teaching job at the San Francisco Conservatory and hit his groove. Now 67, he has lived for decades in Berkeley, has won a Pulitzer Prize for music and has built long-lasting associations with many of the world's great orchestras and opera houses, including the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera.
Without ever moving to New York, he has grown influential and famous and remains ever loyal to the Left Coast. One of his more fruitful associations is with the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, a showcase for brand new orchestral music. The 2014 edition opens Sunday and runs through Aug. 10.
At Cabrillo, Adams notes with a laugh, Haydn and Mozart have been "jettisoned." And Adams, says Cabrillo music director Marin Alsop, has become "kind of a hometown hero. When he attends a concert, he's mobbed. He's like a rock star."
He's one of 13 composers in residence this summer at the festival, where his latest opus -- a 35-minute Saxophone Concerto, densely motor-driven and jazz-inspired without posing as "jazzy"-- will be performed Aug. 9 by soloist Timothy McAllister and the festival orchestra, led by Alsop.
It is Adams' 18th work to be performed at Cabrillo -- where he once was music director, in 1991 -- and he recently has shown his gratitude by joining with the festival to commission new works by composers one-third his age. It's "to keep the energy going," he explains, and to nurture a new generation of composers who actually believe, as he does, that music can change listeners' lives.
"Helping them at a really early stage is very critical, and the great thing about Marin is that she's so willing to take a risk," Adams says over lunch at a restaurant near his home. "They're not even -- to use the buzzword -- 'emerging' composers,'" he says of these protégés. "They're more, like, 'budding.'" Sounding like an elder, he adds, "I don't know how these kids survive. They can't live in San Francisco" because of the cost. "Pretty soon, they won't be able to live in Brooklyn, but I think it's really truly a noble thing."
Adams and his wife, photographer Deborah O'Grady, have established the Pacific Harmony Foundation to help underwrite new works by young composers. (Their son Samuel Adams, 28, is himself a successful composer.) The foundation's first Cabrillo commission (2011) went to Canadian Zosha Di Castri, whose scores can evoke great gusts of color. The second (2012) was given to then 21-year-old Dylan Mattingly, whose "wild-ass, over-the-top energy" Adams admires.
This summer, Cabrillo has invited Mattingly back to premiere another work, his "Sky Madrigal," inspired partly by his "road-tripping around the country" last summer.
"He's a Berkeley boy," Adams notes with pride, "hugely talented." And while Mattingly's pieces can be "sort of shaggy ... sometimes too long and impractical," says Adams, he admires the young man's "fearlessness."
"Even when he was in high school, he got together with a couple of the other kids and created this performance group called Formerly Known as Classical. Oh, it was cool!" Adams says." You'd go over and see a bunch of high school kids doing a program of Arvo Pärt and Phil Glass and Lou Harrison. And I thought, 'God, this is amazing,' and I wanted to support that."
Mattingly says Adams' music "is something that I consider one of the best parts of the world," and calls his Cabrillo experience "a dream come true." He was just 16 when he met Adams in 2007 at Berkeley's Crowden School, where Mattingly attended the John Adams Young Composers Program, another of the elder composer's initiatives. After a concert featuring one of Mattingly's pieces, the teen was shocked when Adams walked over to him, gave him a jokey "punch in the shoulder" and said, "We should hang out." Informal composition lessons ensued, and they have continued intermittently to this day, even as Mattingly prepares for graduate school at Yale.
Also attending the Crowden School program at about this time was Gabriella Smith, another aspiring composer tapped by Adams. But he was dismayed when she arrived for a lesson with "a stack of scores. I could see that she's just pumping them out with the software programs," he says. This is one of his beefs about young composers -- that they write too much, too quickly, with the assistance of Sibelius and other composition software. Better that they should "agonize" a bit with pencil and paper, taking it slow, Adams says. (His recent comments that some young composers pay too much attention to pop-culture models set off a storm online.)
This year, Adams has commissioned Smith, now 22, to compose a work for the upcoming Cabrillo Festival. Her "Tumblebird Contrails" will open the Aug. 9 program that includes Adams' Saxophone Concerto. Inspired by a three-night, solo backpacking trip Smith took in January around Point Reyes, "Tumblebird" lasts about 10 minutes and "kind of drifts in and out of sense and nonsense, tune and texture, melody and sort of hallucinogenic night-nature music," she says.
Interestingly, Smith's favorite Adams work is "The Dharma at Big Sur," inspired by his first glimpse of the Pacific in 1971. Composed in 2003, it's an amazing piece; you can practically see the sun exploding over endless crashing waves.
Smith, a doctoral student in composition at Princeton, says, "I love the trajectory of it, how it's so continuous. There's always a sense of direction, to its very last second, and it feels like your eyes are opening wider, continuously. That's something I was trying to capture for my own piece."
During lunch at the restaurant, Adams tells the story of his first piece for Cabrillo, in 1978, when he was 31. He composed "Wavemaker" for the Kronos Quartet, and it was a "catastrophe," he says, because of a lack of rehearsal time and his own learning curve; it was his first stab at composing for string quartet.
He'd had too much to drink the night before the premiere and, hung over the next morning, stepped into a bees' nest while taking his dog for a walk in Golden Gate Park. He passed out, and a friend had to drive him to Cabrillo, where he heard Kronos "sawing away" at his misguided piece in rehearsal. Adams went into shock and wound up in the hospital on an I.V.
"It's true!" he exclaims, laughing.
His new Saxophone Concerto -- recently released on Nonesuch Records and receiving its West Coast premiere at Cabrillo -- is a dense, magnetic work.
It requires endurance from the soloist. Adams wrote it for saxophonist McAllister, a wiz who has recorded and performed Adams' "City Noir" (2009), which also includes a challenging saxophone part. On the new recording, McAllister expressively dispatches the concerto's "cinematic sweeping phrases," as he describes them, shot through with "large intervallic language" and complex rhythms -- "churning mixed meters and offbeat syncopations." One of the biggest challenges, McAllister says, was "learning to crack the code of the sound that John wanted."
Adams finds traditional classical saxophone playing -- the so-called French style, with a uniform wide vibrato -- to be "borderline obnoxious." By contrast, he finds "the sax, in the hands of a great jazz artist, is an incomparably wonderful instrument." But in this work, Adams wasn't exactly looking for a jazz sound, either.
He grew up listening to jazz. His grandfather owned a lakeside dance hall in New Hampshire, where Adams saw Duke Ellington's band perform in the '60s. He always admired Ellington's rapturous alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Then, starting in his teens, Adams discovered saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods, Eric Dolphy (whose lunging, angular language lodges somewhere in the new concerto) and John Coltrane (whose recordings Adams, without success, tried to mimic, playing along on a beat-up borrowed tenor sax).
The concerto is inspired by Adams' love of two iconic saxophone-plus-strings albums: Stan Getz's "Focus" and "Charlie Parker with Strings," though it sounds nothing like either.
Adams and McAllister have refined their approach to the concerto since its premiere last summer in Sydney, Australia. In the end, McAllister says, the piece calls for "a sound that references jazz, but is still classical." The concerto contains "nothing so literal that it seems borrowed, or a pastiche" of jazz -- no blues scales, no cliches, he notes.
It's just John Adams scraping away nonessentials to unearth a kind of bewitching nocturnal soundscape. On each hearing, one perceives something new. It feels like your eyes are opening wider, continuously.
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
Marin Alsop, music director; featuring John Adams' new Saxophone Concerto, with soloist Timothy McAllister
July 27-Aug. 10
programs (including the Adams concerto, Aug. 9) at Santa Cruz Civic