It’s always a treat to speak with a symphonic composer who maintains a lively Instagram and Bandcamp presence. At 37 years old, raffish innovator Samuel Adams has already established himself as one of the Bay Area’s biggest reps in the wider classical world: More than a decade ago the San Francisco Symphony’s Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the West Coast premiere of Adams’ large-scale Drift and Providence, which featured sections named “Divisadero” and “Embarcadero.” As the son of legendary San Francisco composer John Adams, he carries on a starry local legacy in the orchestral firmament.
But he’s equally at home on the more intimate, avant-garde side of things, bringing collaborations with maverick Berkeley dance company Post:ballet and rad musical duo The Living Earth Show to life in stunners like 2021’s mythical-immersive Lyra. Over the pandemic, he has produced isolation-ready works such as the interdisciplinary “Playing Changes,” a solo violin piece (played by his wife Helen Kim) with a single dancer (Post:ballet’s Landes Dixon) choreographed by Bay Area mainstay Robin Dekkers, all filmed in the cavernous 16th Street Oakland train station, a “magical” place to him.
“Those are my people, I can’t imagine ever not making things with them,” he says over the phone of his arts underground family.
Adams recently made the move up north to Seattle with Kim, who is now associate concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony, and his very young child. “It was such a great opportunity. I work from home so I can be anywhere, but obviously Helen can’t. I’ve been busy so far with a little kid, and I may need to get used to the constant gray up here. But I can’t wait to get out and explore the city and the nature,” says the composer who can draw inspiration from urban bike rides and outdoor jaunts, and who says we may start to hear “a bit more of the Pacific Northwest” in his work soon.
Fortunately, he’ll still be a presence in the Bay Area, too—especially with the world premiere of No Such Spring, commissioned by the SF Symphony (Thu/23-Sun/26) which finds Adams again working on a larger canvas. At first glance, the piece resembles a piano concerto—pianist Conor Hanick accompanies the Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, for the new work, which is structured in three parts. But Adams is more wily: It’s like that, sure, but also no such thing.
“When you think of a ‘piano concerto,’ the immediate signifier is something big and dramatic, like Rachmaninoff, where the pianist plays their part and the orchestra answers,” Adams told me. “But for this piece, the piano is speaking as part of the orchestra, from within it, almost like a quiet, inner voice commenting on what’s happening. Conor is a wonderfully inquisitive player, so that really comes through when you hear him.”
Thoughtful, ruminative, often ravishing qualities carry through most of Adams’ compositions—the restive middle stretch of his 2018 “Movements (for us and them)” basically sounds like how my brain works, for example. Harmonic textures, too, drift in and about each other; ideas run off in their own direction until something new pops up, and then the music follows that wherever it leads. It’s an endless regeneration that lends itself to metaphors of spring, yet can take on weightier expressions.
“I was asked to write the piece in April 2020, only a month or so after we all came to a grinding halt,” Adams says. “I thought, OK, in six months we would be back performing for audiences, ha ha. And then the piece, and life, had some setbacks. I didn’t really start writing it in earnest until 2021. By then I felt that after a year of lockdowns and not being able to share music in larger settings, I wanted to make something aspirational, positivistic. That’s the concept of spring, of opening up. It shows up in literature, pop, jazz… It’s a basic human thing we all experience.
“But you can’t escape what we’ve experienced going through the pandemic, and what we encountered when we finally did start to emerge, especially in the United States—what we returned to. The piece is not explicitly about gun violence, or inequality and oppression, or the January 6 riot, but this feeling of the friction between getting back to ‘normal’ and the country struggling with a very difficult time.
“When I’m in the middle of a piece it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, but now that I have a little clarity, I see it’s a piece about my feelings about my country right now. It’s absolutely not dark and bleak and literal that way. It’s the opposite, there’s color and aspirational hope and beauty in the piece. But it does reflect the difficulty of what’s going on. At least that’s what I feel it expresses.
“I can’t control people’s reaction when they hear it, obviously. But when I write, what matters to me the most is how something may affect the listener.”
No Such Spring is paired on the program with Austrian composer Anton Bruckner’s monumentally swoony Symphony No. 6 from 1879-1881, a touchstone of late Romanticism. When I ask Adams how if he sees any affinity between the works, he laughs.
“When I was first asked to do this piece it was going to go with Das Rheingold by Wagner, which is, of course, gigantic. Then it was paired for Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. That’s the piece I was thinking about while writing. There’s some beautiful writing for two harps in there; I wanted that resonant, string-like quality.
“Then that got scrapped, but I do think there are some connections to Bruckner. Some of his later symphonies have a kind of cyclical movement. That’s not the case with most Romantic music, which is usually linear. With Bruckner you patiently wait for certain themes to return, and it feels tectonic, organic.
“That cyclical quality resembles mine in that the ‘theme’ in the first movement is this musical coming into spring. Then the second contains double variations on that, and the third recreates the beginning—but goes off the rails at some point and toward somewhere else.”
In any case, Adams is exhilarated to finally be debuting No Such Spring for audiences. “I’ve never been so excited for a premiere. I am fired up. And for it to be happening with Esa-Pekka—you really can’t ask for a better conductor. H’s a composer, too, so he’s been really sympathetic to the twists and turns of this whole process—of which there have definitely been many.”
SALONEN CONDUCTS BRUCKNER & ADAMS Thu/23-Sun/26, Davies Symphony Hall, SF. More info here.