The Axman Cometh

When Emanuel Ax asked John Adams to write a concerto for him, the composer quickly agreed. After all, since winning the first Arthur Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1974 at the age of 24, Ax has been one of the most sought-after soloists on the circuit. Known for his empathetic interpretations of romantic-era works, Ax has also shown an affinity for classical composers, as evidenced by his cycle of Haydn piano pieces.

On the surface, the minimalist Adams, best known to local audiences for Nixon in China, the quirky historical opera that Houston Grand Opera premiered in 1987, would seem an odd choice for a collaboration; until you realize Ax recently has been drawn to 20th-century composers, including Aaron Copland and Sir Michael Tippett.

While initially excited by the challenge, Adams was quickly confronted with a problem: He isn't a pianist, and there's a big difference between scoring a piece for an orchestra and a piano concerto. While searching for ideas, Adams became intrigued by George Gershwin's pieces for the player piano. Noting that the sonic images created by piano rolls differ from those of a live pianist, Adams sought to replicate the former's mechanical sounds using the accompaniment of an orchestra. After immersing himself in the piano rolls of Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Conlon Nancarrow and Jelly Roll Morton, Adams wrote Century Rolls.

Adams re-creates the sounds and textures of a player piano by scoring a marimba, a vibraphone, a xylophone and a celesta in various combinations with the keyboard. The somewhat minimalist nature of Adams's first movement, which is filled with ostinatos, or constantly repeating melodic phrases, also gives the impression of a mechanical device. To further recall the self-playing instrument's golden era, Adams lifts slow, sustained orchestral chords and walking bass figures from impressionistic and early jazz composers, the very composers most often associated with the player piano.

It would seem that Adams has taken the concept of orchestras playing with real piano rolls, which the Houston Symphony did recently, a step further: by turning the orchestra into a piano roll itself.

Pianist Emanuel Ax performs the Southwest premiere of John Adams's Century Rolls with the Houston Symphony on March 11, 12 and 13 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Performances are at 8 p.m. on Saturday and Monday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets: $20-$58. For more information, call (713)224-7575.

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