Chairman Dances: “Foxtrot for Orchestra”

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        This composition is a brilliant little piece that, despite its evident attractiveness, doesn’t quite convey the significance of its composer. Adams is perhaps the most important and distinguished composer of our time. Many critics hail him as the clear successor to the mantle of Aaron Copland, and they have ample reason to do so. One respected writer deemed him “ . . . the exemplary American composer,” dismissing the music of Samuel Barber as too “genteel,” that of Charles Ives as too “ornery,” Bernstein’s as too “inconsistent,” and Elliot Carter’s as too “ugly.” No American composer of the last quarter century or so has composed so many significant works, so well received by both critics and the broader audiences, as has he. He was born and raised in Massachusetts, educated at Harvard University, and has spent his time since living, composing, and teaching in and near San Francisco. Earlier in his career he was pigeonholed as a “minimalist,” along with Terry Riley and Charles Reich, but he has enrichened and broadened his compositional style considerably since those early days in the 1970s in the Bay Area. He eschews the “systems” of composition so rigidly characteristic of academic composers of the post-war period, rather drawing upon an eclectic variety of musical resources. He was raised in a family that valued big band music as well as Mozart, and he played in a marching band as a teenager. He was a substitute clarinet player in the Boston Symphony, and continues to conduct on an occasional basis. His music is founded thoroughly in a deep respect for the great variety of human experience in our culture, viewed through the prism of a nuanced intellectuality—not unlike Copland. And in the same way, his music is popular. He can be controversial: witness the firestorm surrounding his opera about the hijacking of the cruise ship, Achille Lauro, The Death of Klinghoffer (1990), which many critics found anti-Semitic. His recent opera, Doctor Atomic, is about Robert Oppenheimer and the events leading to the first test of the atomic bomb. He was honored with a commission by the New York Philharmonic to compose The Transmigration of Souls for its first anniversary observance of the events of 9/11 in 2002. That work was universally hailed for its sensitivity to personal loss without the bathos of political and patriotic excess.

          He is perhaps best known for his opera, Nixon in China, given its première by the Houston Grand Opera in 1987. Chairman Dances is taken from the last of the three acts of the opera—the last night in China. The main characters, of course, are Dick and Pat Nixon and Chairman Mao and his wife, as well as Kissinger and Chou En-lai. In this act they dance a foxtrot while reflecting upon their individual pasts, and the meaning, respectively, of their life’s work. The foxtrot was extracted from the opera before its première, and published separately. Two characteristics of Adams’ work are apparent here: his fascination with contemporary politics and culture, and his appreciation for popular music of the past.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2024 William E. Runyan