"My friendship is with the private John," Nonesuch’s longtime President and current Chairman Emeritus Bob Hurwitz writes in the new 40-disc box set John Adams Collected Works, "but it is never far from my mind that I am with the man who wrote Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, Harmonielehre and Naive and Sentimental Music, Scheherazade.2 and Shaker Loops." You can read his complete note from the box set here.
Nonesuch Records released the forty-disc John Adams Collected Works, a box set of recordings spanning more than four decades of the composer’s career with the label, on Friday. It includes two extensive booklets with new essays and notes by Timo Andres (which you can read here), Nico Muhly (read here), Jake Wilder-Smith (read here), Julia Bullock, and Robert Hurwitz, Nonesuch’s longtime President and current Chairman Emeritus. Below is Hurwitz's note:
Peter Pastreich, the president of the San Francisco Symphony, comes to the ECM worldwide headquarters (staff: five people), in back of an electronics store in suburban Munich, to “negotiate” the deal for the recording of Harmonium, the first John Adams album that I have ever been involved with. It’s the winter of 1981, Peter has other business in Europe, he’s on a tight schedule, we have 20 minutes of his time. We tell him how much ECM can contribute to the recording and he is dumbfounded; he barks, “That’s the worst deal I have ever heard,” and without skipping a beat, says, “But of course, we want to do this.”
I fly to San Francisco, hear the piece for the first time live (I had previously only heard a tape), and as good as I think it is, I had no idea. The session is remarkable: Edo de Waart, who is the music director of the San Francisco Symphony and who brought John in as its composer-in-residence, has a great feeling for the piece. Wilhelm Hellweg, who records all of Edo’s albums for Philips, produces it. And I get to sit next to John Adams, and watch him in action; his intensity during the session seems no different than if he were conducting. Harmonium is a miracle and I am aware of how extraordinary this moment is.
We finish it in four hours. It comes out on ECM.
A year or so later, I leave ECM. I’ve been hired to run Nonesuch Records, where I have inherited the recordings of a series funded by Meet the Composer, which has provided financing for a dozen American orchestras to hire a composer-in-residence. As part of the agreement, each composer is to write one 20-minute composition, which Meet the Composer will finance and Nonesuch will release. It will take up one side of an LP, coupled with another composer’s new composition. John Adams is part of the program. He jokes that he wrote the second and third movements of his piece, Harmonielehre, so he won’t have to share the record with anyone else. I believe it. (I only find out 30 years later that he actually was joking; he always planned for Harmonielehre to be the 40-minute, three-movement masterpiece we know today.)
The world premiere is on a Thursday afternoon at Davies Hall in San Francisco. A few days later we record it, with Edo and Wilhelm, conductor and producer, once again.
We finish it in four hours. It’s John’s first album on Nonesuch. It’s an amazing piece and an amazing album.
The next morning I have breakfast with John, his wife Debbie O’Grady, and their one-year-old daughter Emily. I tell him that I want to record every piece of music he writes from this point forward. He quickly agrees. I can’t believe it—it’s that easy! It’s the first genuinely happy moment I have had in my first nine months at the company, a period when I have been constantly wracked with anxiety—questions of who I should record, whose contracts from the previous regime I will end, the specter of failure awaiting me at 3 a.m. every morning.
I call the great American photographer William Clift, whom I had met in Santa Fe a few years earlier. “Would you take a portrait of John for the cover?” He agrees. I call the wonderful writer Jonathan Cott, “Would you do an interview with John for the liner notes?” He also agrees. We are off to a perfect start.
About a year later, I’m back in San Francisco. I now see Peter Pastreich as a heroic figure. This is the third John Adams record with the San Francisco Symphony I have been involved with and it is only possible because of Peter’s fundraising efforts. Nonesuch, at this early moment in my time there, could never have possibly afforded a symphony recording like the one we are making. Peter makes it possible.
John has four new compositions: The Chairman Dances, Tromba Lontana, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Common Tones in Simple Time, each one a jewel. We finish the recording of these four pieces in one four-hour session.
Like Harmonielehre, the Chairman Dances album is a joy. We’re on our way.
There are so many points of entry in talking about the enormous accomplishments of John Adams and his Nonesuch recordings. The operas. The music for symphony orchestra, for soloists, for chamber ensembles, for solo piano. The amazing community of conductors, pianists, singers, violinists, clarinetists, chamber ensembles who have lovingly performed his music. The special relationships with the San Francisco Symphony and the LA Philharmonic. The album producers, the photographers, the liner note writers, the designers, the music publishers, managers, agents, the personnel at artistic institutions, the foundations, the donors. The Nonesuch staff. Could you eliminate even one of these and have the same result?
The record producers, for instance. Most artists find a producer they are comfortable with and stick with them for decades, sometimes for their entire career. John has worked with eight different producers—beginning with Wilhelm Hellweg—and they all have been important relationships. Hellweg produced the first group of records, as well as El Niño. John McClure produced albums in the early ’90s, including The Death of Klinghoffer. McClure worked for years at Columbia and was the primary producer for a number of their most extraordinary composers and performers. When he produced Klinghoffer in Lyon in 1991, he said to John one night, “You know, I got to work with Stravinsky, Lenny, Copland. They are all gone. But now I get to work with John Adams!”
Judy Sherman produced three important chamber music albums: Road Movies, Son of Chamber Symphony, John’s Book of Alleged Dances. Tommy Krasker brought his music theater expertise to I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky; Martin Sauer made the stupendous recording of Naive and Sentimental Music and many others; Martin’s colleague Friedemann Engelbrecht produced Doctor Atomic and several St. Louis Symphony albums. Other albums were produced by Larry Rock and Steve Epstein. At least a dozen first-rate engineers worked on these recordings, and in a category by himself, Mark Grey has spent decades doing sound for John’s recordings and, even more notably, his concerts and operas. I wonder how many people who listen closely could tell the difference from record to record; they are all well-recorded. The one thing that connects them is that they are filled with the power and energy of John’s music.
The area of production is not only about sound but about art, graphics, notes, and the huge amount of work it takes just to get an album into the marketplace. There have been three terrific photographers whose work has been used multiple times: Clift (Harmonielehre, Harmonium, Earbox, and the cover of this box); Joel Meyerowitz (Klinghoffer, Chairman Dances, Transmigration), and Deborah O’Grady (Road Movies, Son of Chamber Symphony, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Hoodoo Zephyr). Among the other covers are two Weegees, as well as photographs by Edward Weston, Mathew Brady, and William Eggleston. There’s also a cow and an atomic bomb; and even one by me, unattributed.
Inside the packages has been a series of quite extraordinary essays, a number by John as well as by Ingram Marshall, Mark Swed, and, most significantly, Michael Steinberg, who wrote brilliantly about John’s first three operas, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and El Niño.
The covers and packages have been treated with care. A number of designers worked on covers during the first few years, but John ultimately settled on working with John Heiden, who designed this package, of course. There has been a high level of consistency from the Nonesuch production department, where two people, Albert Lee and Karina Beznicki, have been closely associated with John’s recordings. Early on, Albert set a high level of expertise through John’s first nine recordings; Karina took over in 1996 and has overseen the packages and most of the recordings since then with an attention to detail that is simply beyond any possible expectation. Karina’s contributions have been especially significant—in her 29 years at Nonesuch she has labored over tens of thousands of details that have made these albums as special as they are.
Then there were the donors and foundations. The degree of importance of individuals and institutions who helped make these recordings possible cannot be overstated, especially regarding the large-scale works like the operas. Help came in a number of ways: when Nixon in China was recorded, it received the largest NEA grant towards a recording in history—$57,000 in 1987 dollars, which translates to $134,000 in 2021. The two major operas that Kent Nagano conducted were partially funded by the Lyon Opera (The Death of Klinghoffer) and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris (El Niño), which was able to negotiate a deal with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin that provided the orchestra at no cost for 12 sessions during the run of the opera. Flowering Tree was made possible by a unique approach that the London Symphony offered to us; aware that it was harder for companies to pay for recordings, they created a new model to make albums like this possible. And Doctor Atomic was recorded with the help of Gordon Getty, without whose massive contribution it might not be available.
There have been many others who have followed Peter Pastreich’s great example. When Michael Bronson was at the St. Louis Symphony, he and its music director David Robertson came to Nonesuch with a very favorable arrangement, which has resulted in four new albums, including the Grammy-winning City Noir. A similar approach, spearheaded by Barbara Haws at the New York Philharmonic, helped make the release of the Pulitzer Prize (and thrice Grammy) winner Transmigration of Souls possible. And in London, Paul Hughes of the BBC Orchestra created conditions that eased the financial pressure of the recordings of Dharma at Big Sur and Doctor Atomic.
In recent years, as the classical record business has slowed terribly because of streaming, orchestras are taking a more proactive role in recording, creating new agreements with their players that will allow for more recordings that are affordable to make. The LA Philharmonic, led by the visionary Chad Smith, who began his recording program long before he became the head of the orchestra, has already put into place a plan for a concert performance and ultimate recording of John’s opera The Girls of the Golden West.
Another major contributor, in a backward way, was Warners—whether Elektra or Warner Bros., the two principal umbrella companies that Nonesuch has been under. In the early days, the support came primarily from Bob Krasnow, the Chairman of Elektra, whose credentials in music included Captain Beefheart, James Brown, Metallica, and Anita Baker—as unlikely a quartet as one would ever find in the music business. You could throw John Adams into the mix as well. During my first ten years, Krasnow fully supported my work with John; he actually flew to Houston for the world premiere of Nixon in China and went to Brussels for the premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer, even though the piece, at its first exposure, deeply troubled him. I remember flying out to San Francisco for the Chairman Dances record and not telling anyone at the company, nor seeking permission—enabled by the remarkable environment Krasnow created that made things like this possible.
We also benefited from the moment in time when we started making Adams recordings. Harmonielehre was recorded in 1985 and released in 1986, at a moment when CDs were exploding and record stores like Tower were changing the landscape of the American business. On the pop side, few records ever sold more than two million copies in the early ’60s; by the early ’80s, some of the most successful albums were selling 10, 20, 30 million copies—Thriller by Michael Jackson sold more than 75 million copies. This meant profits for the big companies reached levels never seen before, and it meant that there was less pressure for us in terms of making albums that may have lost a little, or broken even, or made just a bit. In a way, with John’s recordings, the booming business provided a cover that allowed us to get going in the first 15 years, until Napster, when the album business began fading away. But by that time, Nonesuch was on its feet: we could protect John, and he had reached a point in his career at which it became imperative to make every new record, no matter what the financial obligation.
And this was all supported by a wonderful community of people at Nonesuch—our marketing head Peter Clancy, other production people like Sidney Chen and Artie Moorhead, the publicists Carol Yaple, Debbie Ferraro, and Melissa Cusick, our international staff including Melanie Zessos, Matthew Rankin, and Katie Havelock; and then Senior VP (and now President of Nonesuch) David Bither who continues to be enthusiastic about all activities relating to John.
Others contributed to John’s career and indirectly impacted the recordings, most especially his publishers—starting with Susan Feder, who first signed him to G. Schirmer, and his long-term colleagues at Boosey & Hawkes, which has represented him for the last 35 years. Tony Fell, David Huntley, Zizi Mueller, and above all, Janis Susskind have brought the same intensity and passion to his work as all of those already discussed. Boosey supported the recording process by creating partnerships for operas like El Niño, Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic that helped get these recordings made.
And the community around John: Peter Sellars’s seven operatic collaborations have had an inestimable impact on John’s career and our appreciation of his achievements. And lifelong friends and supporters: Ara Guzelimian (curator), Betty Freeman (patron), the composer Ingram Marshall (dearest friend), Deborah Borda (who has supported him at the four orchestras she has worked at or run). And: his children Emily and Sam Adams and, above all, his wonderful wife Debbie.
Finally, an amazing group of remarkable musicians who perform on all of these records: the conductors Edo de Waart, Kent Nagano, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Grant Gershon, Christoph von Dohnányi, Lorin Maazel, Gustavo Dudamel, Michael Tilson Thomas (and of course John); the singers (among many others) Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Sandy Sylvan, James Maddalena, Eric Owens, Julia Bullock, Gerald Finley, Audra McDonald; the pianists Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Paul Crossley, Nicolas Hodges, and Rolf Hind; the violinists Leila Josefowicz, Gidon Kremer, and Tracy Silverman; the clarinetist Michael Collins; the alto saxophonist Timothy McAllister; the Kronos and St. Lawrence Quartets; Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. The American symphony orchestras of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Cleveland; three in Great Britain (the London Symphony, the BBC, and Hallé); the opera productions with the LSO, DSO, BBC, Lyon. Astonishing.
On one hand, as one can see, there is no real “magic” about these recordings, as they represent the work and dedication of a large community of like-minded people who all have the same kind of belief I had in John, everyone making the kind of contributions necessary to make the recordings happen at an extraordinary level.
The magic, if you want to call it that—that’s the music that John has written over these years.
There are 40 discs in this set. Three were recorded by the LA Philharmonic and graciously licensed to us, as was a fourth from the San Francisco Symphony and a fifth from the Berlin Philharmonic. The remaining 35 discs came out of Nonesuch recording sessions, each made with military precision to ensure we were able to get what we needed and stay within budget. I can’t remember more than one or two sessions going into overtime.
The sessions themselves have always presented challenges. In some of the operas, we have had to overdub singers because of illness (Carol Ann Page in Nixon in China) or because the recordings took place around the time of performances and it was too much of a burden on the singers (El Niño). John asked for a second recording of his Violin Concerto (even though the first, by Gidon Kremer, was thrilling) because he felt Leila Josefowicz had found a different way into the piece that he could not have initially imagined. A few times he was frustrated by a studio (Son of Chamber Symphony), though Judy Sherman ingeniously solved the problems in the mixing and editing. A few times we were on pins and needles as to whether we would finish before the clock ran out. It was slow going in Cleveland at the Century Rolls sessions (it was not the orchestra as much as the production), but Manny Ax charged ahead, lassoed the troops, and brought it from a disaster to something genuinely brilliant.
Twice John found recordings of pieces not up to his standards or expectations, and asked if we could not release those albums, but try a different approach. He was right; the subsequent versions were simply better, closer to his intentions.
We also recorded and released a second version of Harmonium, once again by the San Francisco Symphony, this time with John conducting. The piece is so important in John’s life, it was not in our catalogue, and once again, Peter Pastreich found a way to supplement our endeavor. There was one thing we knew we needed to get better—the chorus was too soft on the ECM album; easily corrected. I have always loved John’s conducting of his pieces practically above all others, and this was beyond any expectation. I think we finished with five minutes to spare, another four-hour session, and I remember saying to John, “You must have been unconscious when you wrote this piece.” He responded, “I think I was.”
John and I have wandered together in Moab, Utah, and Wengen in the Swiss Alps; in the Valley of the Gods and Jackson Heights; in Hampstead Heath and Brushy Ridge; Yankee Stadium and the Oakland Coliseum, where his beloved A’s play. We took our daughters to Monument Valley and Arches one summer; they became roommates when they were out of college, living in Brooklyn (of course). I was with him on his 50th birthday in Amsterdam, when he conducted the Gil Evans Miles Ahead scores; it happened to be the first jazz record I ever owned. He and I had a Wild Strawberries tour of Woodstock, Marlboro, and the Hancock Shaker Village around the time of my 60th.
We have exchanged letters for much of the last 30 years. The letters frequently come in four or five mini-chapters; the first might be about planning a new record, or my expressing frustration about the business, or his frustration about a premiere or a collaboration. Another section will be devoted to politics: it started in Clinton’s administration and became more heated in the years 2000–08 and 2016–20. A third part will be the culture section: what movies, long-form TV shows, and, most especially, books we are reading. Four is about our wives, sons, and daughters. And the last is about baseball—the Oakland A’s are mentioned in at least half the letters he sends to me.
Through John’s work, I became aware of a number of artists who ultimately recorded separately for Nonesuch—Jeremy Denk, Sandy Sylvan, Julia Bullock. He has written three pieces dedicated to me: Doctor Atomic, Hoodoo Zephyr (it reads, “This one for Maximum Bob, canyonman”), and I Still Play, a piano piece composed for me to play—though when I tried to play it for John, I completely froze; I can still play it all except for the eight measures I have to take at quarter speed. There is little I could ever offer John that would be as meaningful to him as what these three astonishing compositions have meant in my life.
Like any couple in a long-term relationship, it has not been without conflict. I have had my own frustrations, and I am sure he has as well. He once blew up at me, showed real anger—it had to do with an ongoing conversation about his frustrations over record sales and my pushing back, where I perhaps crossed a line. He was just doing what a recording artist is supposed to do, I was doing what a record company executive was supposed to do. Once in 38 years: not bad. Yes, I would say, he is one of my dearest friends, but unlike most of my other close friends, there are two aspects to our friendship. My friendship is with the private John, but it is never far from my mind that I am with the man who wrote Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, Harmonielehre and Naive and Sentimental Music, Scheherazade.2 and Shaker Loops. Sometimes I can’t help myself, I forget I am with John, my dear friend, and I actually think, “I know this amazing composer.” It would be like knowing—and being close friends with—Stravinsky or Miles Davis, Beethoven or Bob Dylan. That’s how important his music has been in my life. I know John Adams!
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