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John Adams

John and Samantha Williams Creative Chair

About this Artist

Composer, conductor, and creative thinker—John Adams occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, their brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. Over the past 40 years, Adams’ music has played a decisive role in turning the tide of contemporary musical aesthetics away from academic modernism and toward a more expansive, expressive language, entirely characteristic of his New World surroundings. 

Works spanning more than three decades have entered the repertoire and are among the most performed of all contemporary classical music, among them Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, Chamber Symphony, Absolute Jest, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto. His stage works, in collaboration with director Peter Sellars, include  Girls of the Golden West (2017), Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), El Niño(2000),Doctor Atomic (2005),A Flowering Tree (2006), and the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012).  

In September 2022, San Francisco Opera opened its centennial season with the world premiere of Adams’ new opera Antony and Cleopatra, with a libretto adapted by the composer from Shakespeare’s tragedy in a production directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer. 

Other recent works include Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, written for piano soloist Yuja Wang, the LA Phil, and Gustavo Dudamel, as well as the orchestral workI Still Dance, written for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony and premiered in September 2019 in San Francisco. 

Adams is the 2019 recipient of Holland’s Erasmus Prize “for notable contributions to European culture, society and social science,” the only American composer to be so honored in the prize’s 61-year history. He received the 2021 Ditson Conductor’s Award from Columbia University in recognition of his “exceptional commitment to American composers.” Other awards include the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for composing On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, and the 1993 Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto. Adams has received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Northwestern University, Cambridge University, the Juilliard School, and the Royal Academy of Music. Adams was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Award in 2009. He is a provocative writer, including his highly acclaimed autobiography Hallelujah Junction and he has contributed to both The New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review 

As a conductor, Adams appears with the world’s major orchestras in programs combining his own works with a wide variety of repertoire ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to Sibelius, Stravinsky, Bartók, Ellington, Glass, Reich, and Zappa. In recent seasons, he has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony, the orchestras of Saint Louis, Cleveland, and Rotterdam, the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he has held the position of Creative Chair since 2008. He has twice been Music Director of California’s Ojai Festival. 

In 2020, Deutsche Grammophon released the world premiere recording of Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, featuring Yuja Wang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Other recent releases include the world premiere recording of Doctor Atomic (Nonesuch 2018), with Adams conducting the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra; and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s “John Adams Edition,” a 2017 box set of live performances conducted by Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, Kirill Petrenko, and Sir Simon Rattle. 

Together with his wife, photographer Deborah O’Grady, Adams has created the Pacific Harmony Foundation, which funds young composers, ensembles, and music education outreach.