Say the name of composer John Adams, and chances are the first response is "Nixon in China." "I find it in crossword puzzles," observes Adams. "I think it's sunk deep down into our subconscious." Since its premiere in Houston in 1987, with a libretto by Alice Goodman and stage direction by Peter Sellars, Nixon has accumulated recognition over the years. "I got an intuition about a year into composing it that it was not going to be your average premiere," Adams says. "Nixon, like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, was a lightning rod of the collective unconscious."
But as the recently released Earbox -- a 10-CD boxed-set retrospective from Nonesuch Records -- reveals, Adams' career deserves more than a crossword reference. "What I like about this box is that it's very Stravinskian in the fact that it moves through so many different modes of expression," says the composer. "There's everything in there from violin concertos and big gigantic orchestra pieces like "Harmonielehre' and "Harmonium' to pop songs and chamber music. There's very pure, very tonal music, and then there are pieces like the chamber symphony and the violin concerto, which are right on the edge of tonality and very inventive. I think there are a lot of risks taken over the last 20 years."
St. Louis audiences have the opportunity to hear Adams' most recent risk-taking, the symphony "Naive and Sentimental Music," at Powell Hall. The title is not ironic, as might be assumed by those who've only heard of -- and not heard -- Adams' music. "For me," Adams says, "the biggest problem with so much 20th-century classical music has been its intense sobriety and its obsession with technical manipulation. Part of that is the musical version of modernism, which, starting with Schoenberg, took a direction that was very alienating. One of the principal losses that occurred to me was that contemporary music seemed to abnegate its ability to say something simple. The simple, the naive, the spontaneous seemed to exist only in the world of jazz or pop music. It seemed to me something that ought to be accessible in classical music."
John Adams conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd. A Q&A is held after the concert. Call 534-1700 for tickets.