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Program Notes: Adams Conducts Adams (January 28-29, 2022)


John Adams, conductor

Tumblebird Contrails (2014)

John Adams

Violin Concerto, op. 14 (2019)

Gritty, funky, but in Strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-like—

Much Slower; Gently, Relaxed—

Più Mosso: Obsession / Swing

Jeremy Denk, piano

Jean Sibelius

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, op. 39 (1899)

Andante, ma non troppo; Allegro energico

Andante (ma non troppo lento)

Scherzo: Allegro

Finale (Quasi una fantasia): Andante; Allegro molto


Program Notes

By Tim Munro

John Adams on Sibelius

“I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with the story of Sibelius, because, well, first of all, he stopped composing. He was in his sixties when he retired. I respect the fact that he did not continue to compose.

“Most of us know Sibelius’s seven symphonies, maybe ten tone poems, and the Violin Concerto. And that’s it. But if you look at his complete output, it was staggering. He was like Rossini! He wrote so much music, most of which we don’t know.

“I’ve conducted almost all of the Sibelius symphonies, but I’ve never conducted the First. I’d always thought that the First was sort of lukewarm Tchaikovsky. Once I started learning it, I became full of admiration. The material is so beautifully integrated and woven.

“There’s a real economy of ideas, which is, for me, one of the reasons why Sibelius has been such extremely important figure for me. He would find a melody or a motif, and create a larger form out of this atom. It was like a gene growing perfectly from its DNA information.”

Gabriella Smith

Tumblebird Contrails

Gabriella Smith

Born December 26, 1991, Berkeley, California

Gabriella Smith is driven by a love for the natural world. As a teenager in Berkeley, California, she volunteered at a songbird research project, and planned to study ecology at university. Music took over, but Smith still spends time in nature, hiking and observing.

The natural world is the catalyst for many of Smith’s works. “The destruction of our biosphere is the biggest issue facing humans and all species on Earth right now.” Her music responds to this threat in works with titles like Field Guide, Bioluminescence Chaconne, Lost Coast, Tidalwave Kitchen.

The title of this work, Tumblebird Contrails, “is a Kerouac-inspired, nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece.” Indeed, Smith’s introduction to the work could have been written by one of the beat poets:

Tumblebird Contrails is inspired by a single moment I experienced while backpacking in Point Reyes, sitting in the sand at the edge of the ocean, listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific (the keening gulls, pounding surf, rush of approaching waves, sizzle of sand and sea foam in receding tides), the constant ebb and flow of pitch to pitchless, tune to texture, grooving to free-flowing, watching a pair of ravens playing in the wind, rolling, swooping, diving, soaring—imagining the ecstasy of wind in the wings—jet trails painting never-ending streaks across the sky.”

First performance: 2014, by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, in Santa Cruz, California, Marin Alsop conducting

First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 12 minutes

John Adams

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

John Adams

Born February 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts

John Adams likes titles. “Anyone who looks at my list of works,” he has written, “knows that I take pleasure in using language.” From Road Movies to Hallelujah Junction, Shaker Loops to Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Adams’ titles are joyful, evocative, and just good fun.

Adams found the phrase “Must the Devil have all the good tunes?” in an old New Yorker article. “Sometimes I’ll find a title, and be so attracted to it that I’ll provide the piece that answers to the title.”

Instrumental virtuosity comes with its own folklore: did the virtuoso make a deal with the devil? When Adams was commissioned to write a concerto for pianist Yuja Wang, he thought first of her virtuosity. The title fit.

The phrase also brought to mind images of the Totentanz (“dance of death”). In this allegory, all levels of society join in a wild dance led by Death. Older European composers have explored the Totentanz, and Adams wanted to create his own “funk-invested American-style.”

The new concerto revels in the deep grooves of 1970s funk, the zaniness of Warner Brother cartoons, the granite face of a Nordic symphony. “In the U.S.,” Adams has written, “we have very loose filters. We grow up listening to all different types of genres.”

In the first movement, a jazzy riff gathers a head of steam, careening off-road. In the second movement, a J.S. Bach–tinged piano solo lies under grey orchestral skies. In the finale, the soloist takes on the furious, unstoppable orchestra.

The piano plays almost constantly, with barely time for breath. The orchestra, colored by electric bass and honky-tonk piano, supports and argues and dances with the freewheeling soloist.

First performance: March 7, 2019, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel conducting, with Yuja Wang as soloist

First SLSO performance: This weekend’s performances

Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 piccolos, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo 2), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling basset horn), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, percussion (almglocken, bass drum, chimes, snare drum), bass guitar, strings

Approximate duration: 27 minutes

Jean Sibelius

Symphony No. 1

Jean Sibelius

Born December 8, 1865,

Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died September 20, 1957, Ainola, Finland

Finland was under Russian control. Newspapers were shut down, the army was run by Moscow. A petition of resistance was circulated and signed by one third of the Finnish population. It had little effect.

At 32, Sibelius was associated with the movement for independence. He had written striking epics based on Finnish folk tales (Kullervo and Lemminkainen), and a defiant hymn railing against Russia’s rule (Song of the Athenians).

It might seem an odd time to write a symphony: a work with no ties to Finnish stories, melodies, or lands. To many, the symphonic form was associated with the Russian Romantics, composers like Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Borodin.

Sibelius wanted to speak on a larger stage. To show that his music was not just “Finnish,” but could hold its own abroad. To show he could carry “a musical idea through to the end, logically and comprehensively, allowing it to expand into universal meaning.”

When he set to work on his First Symphony, Sibelius was 32 years old. His first successes had given him the financial independence to marry. But the family struggled with Sibelius’ alcoholism, his financial worries, his tendency to collapse when times got tough.

At the opening, a distant voice—the clarinet—unfolds a song of beauty and melancholy. Strings jolt the music vividly into action, and the first movement foams, swirls, crashes. Finland, an ancient land, comes alive.

In the second movement, strings sing with dark, Russian melancholy. Sibelius was deeply influenced by Russian symphonists, writers, artists. Seeking his own voice, Sibelius began by reaching into the dark, rich soil of Russia.

The third lets loose an invented folk dance, forceful and eloquent. In the finale, tensions are resolved through violence, pride, and celebration in music as dense and rich as pine forest.

First performance: April 26, 1899, by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the composer conducting

First SLSO performance: December 17, 1909, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 25, 2014, John Storgårds conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), harp, strings

Approximate duration: 38 minutes


Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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