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Adams Takes Pulitzer With Reservations

Friday April 11, 2003

Berkeley composer John Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in music this week for his homage to the Sept. 11 victims, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” but his elation was tempered by criticism of the award. 

“Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism,” he wrote, in an e-mail interview with The New York Times.  

“Anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country’s greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing,” he wrote. 

Adams, like other critics, complains that the Pulitzer jury has focused too much attention, in recent years, on a series of obscure academic composers. 

But UC Berkeley music professor Edmund Campion said the Pulitzer appears to be shifting focus with last year’s award to John Corigliano and this year’s selection of Adams, considered by many to be the nation’s preeminent composer. 

“They seem to be making up for past mistakes,” he said. 

Previous awards, Campion argues, were the product of a cloistered critical culture, powered by composers from the Ivy League colleges of the East Coast and a few western schools like UC Berkeley. 

“Composers in those chairs were responsible for deciding what was important in American music,” he said. “The old structure was definitely in need of being refurbished.” 

The piece that broke through, “Transmigration,” is a 30-minute work for chorus, children’s chorus, orchestra and taped sounds, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which draws on text from the missing persons signs that dotted New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

The piece is the latest in a career that dates back to 1978 when Adams, who did not return calls for this article, began work as new music adviser and composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony. 

Over the past 25 years, Adams has composed for orchestra, video, film and opera — including “Nixon in China,” a 1987 opera, and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” a 1991 piece that drew charges of anti-Semitism, which many consider unfair. 

Adams, in a January 2001 interview with The New Yorker, suggested he is still troubled by the criticism. “At the time, I was so upset,” he said. “I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘Anti-Semitic Opera Opens in Brooklyn’ — you can’t shake that kind of thing.” 

If “Klinghoffer” created controversy, Adams is perhaps best known for pieces like “Harmonium,” “Harmonielehre” and “Shaker Loops,” which add a lush quality to the minimalist stylings of modern composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. 

“One hears harmonies from the late 19th, early 20th century,” said Ronald Bruce Smith, a visiting professor of music at the University of Illinois. “But he fuses that with more recent developments in music.” 

This “synthesis of a broad range of music,” Smith said, marks Adams’ greatest contribution to modern music. 

Richard Reynolds, a French horn player with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, said he is struck by Adams’ ability to combine depth with accessibility. 

“That was something that impressed me deeply,” he said. 

A recent performance of three sections from “Klinghoffer,” Reynolds said, marked one of the most meaningful musical experiences of his life. 

“The emotional impact of the sections we did was just astonishing,” he said. 

Locals interested in seeing a performance of Adams’ work won’t have to wait long. On April 30 the San Francisco Symphony, led by music director Michael Tilson Thomas, will play the world premier of Adams’ “My Father Knew Charles Ives.” 

The piece is the first of four, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, to be performed between now and the 2011-2012 season, when the orchestra celebrates its 100th anniversary. 

Adams, 56, grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire and graduated from Harvard University. He lives in Berkeley with his wife, photographer Deborah O’Grady, and their two teenage children, Emily and Sam.