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John Adams and the SLSO, A Defining Musical Collaboration

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

By Eric Dundon

Composer John Adams has amassed a lengthy list of accolades over the course of his career: multiple GRAMMY® Awards, the Erasmus Prize, several honorary doctorates, and the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Composer John Adams, left, visits with then SLSO Music Director David Robertson during a September 2016 recording session of Adams' Violin Concerto

The Massachusetts-born composer, known for his wide range of music that mixes elements of minimalism and Romanticism, has his pieces performed in concert halls around the world and is among the most-performed artists of his generation.

Few orchestras can claim a closer connection with this contemporary music luminary than your St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Adams returns to St. Louis for the first time in 20 years to lead the orchestra and pianist Jeremy Denk in a program that includes Gabriella Smith’s Tumblebird Contrails, Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, and his own piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, January 28-29.

Although Adams is making only his second appearance on the podium in St. Louis, his relationship with the SLSO goes back to the 1980s as his pieces began to grow in popularity.

Leonard Slatkin, the SLSO’s Conductor Laureate, first led an Adams work in September 1982. At this chamber music concert, a septet of string musicians performed Adams’ Shaker Loops, the widely acclaimed chamber piece that employs repetitive motifs inspired by people of the Shaker faith dancing to energetic music.

Over the next 40 years, Adams’ work received many performances by the SLSO. His work was programmed on 28 of 40 seasons.

On November 12, 1999, Adams made his conducting debut with the SLSO, leading works by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninoff in addition to his own Naïve and Sentimental Music. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the orchestra “played resplendently all evening” under Adams’ direction.

During Music Director David Robertson’s tenure from 2005-2018, the SLSO earned a reputation as a leading performer of Adams’ music. Robertson particularly championed Adams’ music, programming his Harmonielehre on his first classical concert as Music Director in September 2005. In four consecutive appearances at Carnegie Hall from 2005-2008, the SLSO performed Adams’ music, including: Century Rolls with pianist Orli Shaham, On the Transmigration of Souls with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, Harmonielehre, and Doctor Atomic Symphony. In 2017, the SLSO returned to Carnegie Hall with another Adams work, the opera The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The performance was described as “more lithe and stark, somehow more austere” by The New York Times.

In addition to regular performances of Adams’ music, the SLSO has recorded several of his works, beginning in 2007 with Harmonielehre. Additional works recorded by the SLSO include Doctor Atomic Symphony/Guide to Strange Places (2009), City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto (2014), Scheherazade.2 (2016), and the Violin Concerto (2018). The recording of City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto earned widespread acclaim and took home the coveted Best Orchestral Performance GRAMMY® Award in 2015.

Adams’ work has spanned the entire SLSO catalogue, from regular performances on classical programs, to performances on Family Concerts, Young People’s Concerts, Live at the Pulitzer concerts, New Year’s Eve Celebrations, on tours, and at special events. The SLSO also collaborated with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on an Adams opera: The Death of Klinghoffer.

In a career with many firsts with the SLSO, Adams will add another when he returns to St. Louis this month, January 27-30, 2022. The SLSO launches the SLSO Composer Workshop this season, the first in a planned yearly workshop for emerging composers. Adams will serve as a mentor to the workshop’s four composers as they embark in a four-day immersive workshop and a multi-year relationship with the SLSO.


Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.


KWUR Classical Director
KWUR Classical Director

OTSL & the SLSO also staged 'Nixon in China' in 2004.

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