John Adams: A film by Tony Palmer

LABELS: Warner/NVC Arts
ALBUM TITLE: Hail Bop! A portrait of John Adams
WORKS: A film by Tony Palmer
PERFORMER: John Adams, Peter Sellars, Alice Goodman, Emanuel Ax, Laura Aitken, Michael Collins; Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart; London Sinfonietta; Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 50-51011-4857-2-5
In the eight years since this portrait was completed, John Adams’s music has inevitably changed, though whether it has evolved fruitfully is a moot point. Tony Palmer’s film, released without any frills on DVD exactly as it was screened on British television, tracks the American composer’s development up to the time of his piano concerto Century Rolls, and includes footage of him preparing the premiere of that work with the original soloist, Emanuel Ax. The music on which Adams’s reputation was founded therefore all comes within its scope, starting with Shaker Loops with which he began to create his distinctive stylistic synthesis in 1978, and orchestral pieces of the 1980s, before dwelling on the first two operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, which propelled him into the international spotlight.


Though some of the fragments of autobiography that emerge in the extracts of interviews with Adams are interesting enough, the lasting documentary value of Palmer’s film is the light it throws the genesis and reception of those stage works. Both the director Peter Sellars and the librettist Alice Goodman talk extensively; in particular their comments on the Zionist-organised hostility towards the America performances of Klinghoffer which surfaced again when the opera received its British stage premiere at the Edinburgh Festival last year, still have an all too topical resonance. For anyone who knows little of his music, this film provides an enticing introduction, while for those who already admire his achievement, it’s a timely reminder of how fresh and exhilarating the best of it has been. Andrew Clements