NEW YORK — When the New York Philharmonic wanted a piece to memorialize the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it commissioned John Adams to compose one. In October, when the Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel makes his debut as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he will premiere an Adams "jazz symphony'' called City Noir.
Not since Aaron Copland has an American classical composer enjoyed such pre-eminence in his field. Still, writing music for public occasions is "a mixed blessing,'' Adams said recently, remembering how his concerto for electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur, commissioned to open Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, ran into all kinds of problems with the hall's quicksilver acoustics, exacerbated by the introduction of electronic amplification.
"It wasn't a catastrophe exactly, but it was a tough evening,'' said Adams, who consoles himself by reading Mahler's correspondence in which he lamented how many mistakes he made in composing symphonies now regarded as masterpieces.
This month, the stakes weren't quite so high. Adams was in New York for the East Coast premiere of A Flowering Tree, his opera loosely inspired by Mozart's The Magic Flute and thus a fitting entry in the program of Lincoln Center's annual Mostly Mozart festival.
At 62, Adams still looks boyish, like a perennial grad student. He shows up for a box-lunch session with music critics in untucked sport shirt and jeans, unshaven, his wispy white hair windblown, to answer questions with the puckish sense of humor of the smartest kid in class.
"Do you mean, would I like to start another family?'' Adams said when asked if he has another big opera in him like Doctor Atomic, his opus on nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, which took five years to complete.
A Flowering Tree was a different story, taking less than a year to write. Adapted from an ancient Indian folktale and poetry translated into English by A.K. Ramanujan, it's the smallest of Adams' operas, with a relaxed, confident quality to the score. The composer also co-wrote the libretto with his longtime collaborator, director Peter Sellars, and conducted the three New York performances.
Unlike Doctor Atomic and Adams' earlier landmark operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, A Flowering Tree is an intimate affair that departs from the composer's focus on grand American themes. It's about a young girl who can transform herself into a flowering tree, and her marriage to an arrogant young prince, their trials and tribulations, and ultimate redemption.
The Sellars staging was typically resourceful, full of multicultural touches, including three Javanese-style dancers and Venezuela's Schola Cantorum chorus, singing in Spanish and dressed in flamboyant Indian costumes. The excellent principal singers were soprano Jessica Rivera as the girl/tree, tenor Russell Thomas as the prince and baritone Sanford Sylvan as the storyteller.
A Flowering Tree got a bit static at times (a not uncommon problem with Adams-Sellars productions), but the slow, stylized movement of the dancers made a striking impression. Even Adams suggests opera has its limits when it comes to narrative drive and coherence. "I don't think anybody really hears the words in opera,'' he said.
The score was glorious, ranging from lyrical recorder solos to sumptuous, sensual orchestration that was positively Wagnerian. It includes some of Adams' most purely joyous music, which was no coincidence, since it came on the heels of his 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls and Doctor Atomic.
"I had just spent several years thinking about some very dark moments in American history, and A Flowering Tree was totally different,'' he said. "I have always loved the very simple, emotionally direct language of Mozart in The Magic Flute, and I wanted to try to do that.'' (Interestingly, he cited Ingmar Bergman's enchanting 1974 film of the opera as his inspiration.)
Adams has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about being a composer. "I try to compose every day, except when I'm traveling,'' he said. "It's sort of like being an athlete. If you keep in shape, the ideas tend to come. I think most composers are very regular people who just go to work every day, with everything but a lunch pail.''
Last year Adams published Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, a compulsively readable account of American music since World War II. With its mix of autobiography, gossip and critical analysis, it resembles another brilliant memoir by a musical superstar, Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One.
"I've always responded almost musically to beautiful writing,'' said Adams, who mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memoir Living to Tell the Tale as his model.
Adams and his wife have lived in Berkeley, Calif., for 25 years. The couple has a grown son and daughter, and it sounds as if his children have had a significant influence.
"The most important thing for me these days is talking to people in their 20s,'' he said. "We tend to get habitual as we get older. I feel like I read the same newspaper every day, listen to the same five pieces of music.''
One of the keys to Adams' success in finding an audience has been his openness to incorporating pop music into such works as Hoodoo Zephyr, a trippy assemblage of synthesizer and sampled sounds, and his pop-rock opera I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. At heart, though, he remains a classical purist, more likely to listen to Palestrina than Pearl Jam.
"I love classical music because it allows me to think on levels that are very complex. I know that pop artists like Bjork are considered complex, but I'm not so sure.''
Adams doesn't listen to much pop music anymore. "In their day, I loved the Beatles, but at no point did I confuse them with Beethoven or Bach or Mahler,'' he said. "The problem with pop music is that it's this enormous, influential thing that you can't get free of. It just sucks all the air out of the room.''
In response to the marginalization of classical music, Adams takes comfort from the careers of artists like Emily Dickinson or Herman Melville, who were obscure in their lifetimes. "A lot of great art is brought into the world and it's not particularly popular,'' he said. "We do our thing and hope it has a long shelf life.''
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected]