About this work
John Adams' Violin Concerto (1993) represents something of an aesthetic shift for the composer, perhaps reflecting a "post-post-modernist" world view. Continuing in a direction suggested in the early '90s by the increasingly ambiguous harmonies and rhythms of works such as the opera Death of Klinghoffer and the Chamber Symphony, the Violin Concerto's unceasing melody and immediate -- rather than cumulative -- expressivity strike a sharp contrast with the motoric mysticism of Adams' early works. The work follows a traditional three-movement plan: a lengthy, dramatic first movement is followed by a chaconne that is both staid and warmly intimate, which in turn leads into a bustling, high-energy finale. The most prominent remnant of Adams' minimalist beginnings is the use of textural blocks that serve as background for the solo part. The textures, however, are built upon instrumental color and varying figures used in the accompaniment rather than on the steady rhythmic flow and glacial harmonic rhythm typical of the composer's early works. The first movement, titled simply with a metronomic designation (quarter note = 78), begins with a series of eerily rising legato lines in the strings. The soloist enters almost immediately and will hardly find a moment of rest during the course of the work. As the violin explores different modes of melody and figuration, certain ideas are picked up and tossed around by the orchestra, while the initial succession of rising parallel chords in the strings spreads its increasing tension to the winds and brass. The use of synthesizers -- a hallmark of Adams' orchestral music -- contributes to the overall color spectrum while providing distinctive color. As the movement progresses, the rising lines shift from legato to pizzicato as the solo line grows more and more urgent. The accompaniment becomes sparser, completely dissolving with the arrival of the violin's extended cadenza. The cadenza melts into the long, sustained tones of the chaconne. With its subterranean ground bass, this movement exudes a tranquil yet troubled aura akin to fusion of Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" and Pachelbel's Canon in D (the use of which as source material Adams acknowledges in his notes). Again, electronic sounds provide an ethereality to the familiar bass line, while the orchestra and soloist play both with and against the ear's expectations; some figures are foreign, others similar to Pachelbel's original. As though in contrast to the principle of repetition embodied in Pachelbel's canon, an unobtrusive pattern on the marimba cycles in the background. After the final sustained tones of the second movement evaporate, the Toccata begins with a sudden burst of aggressive energy. Frenzied patterns that appear in defined blocks suddenly break into colorful fragments, creating a variety of gestures and textures that, borne upon the movement's unflagging rhythmic and metric flow, carry the work to its close. This work was composed, as the composer states, "always with the goal of making the musical idea and the reality of its execution one and the same thing." In this sense, the exploratory yet expressive nature of the solo part makes it a work both for and about the violin.