Sam Adams’ take on Concerto grosso premieres in Concertgebouw: Movements (for us and them)

For the season 2020-2021 Samuel Adams was booked as composer in residence of The Concertgebouw. Both his residency in Amsterdam and the new orchestral work he was to compose for NTRZaterdagMatinee fell prey to Covid-19 however. On Saturday 22 May the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra will instead perform the Dutch premiere of Movements (for us and them), under the baton of chief conductor Karina Canellakis.

Sam Adams (San Francisco, 1985) is determinedly shaping his career as a composer. – Preferably under his own steam: his biography does not even mention he is the son of the world-famous John Adams. In 2019 he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship.

He had been looking forward to exploring our capital city by bike in order to find inspiration for his new orchestral work, he said in 2020. Though this fell through, he did complete his new composition, Variations, for the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

However, the line-up proved too large for a corona proof performance, therefore it was replaced by Movements (for us and them) for string orchestra. Adams composed this in 2018 for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Critics praised its ‘trance-like energy and radiance’, ‘subtle emotional power,’ and feverish rhythms’.

As the son of a composer and a photographer, Samuel Adams seemed predestined for a career in the cultural world. He started out as a double bass player in jazz ensembles – just as his father had once played the clarinet in jazz orchestras – and only later started composing.

But where John had been more or less caught between serialism and minimalism, Sam ‘didn’t have to choose sides’, as he remarked in an interview: ‘I can use anything I like in my music.’ His work is often lyrical and makes regular use of electronics; besides composition, he studied electroacoustics.


Movements (for us and them) was inspired by Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (Six Memos for the New Millennium) by Italo Calvino (1923-1985). The celebrated Italian author wrote these for a series of lectures at Harvard, defining the different criteria he believed literature should meet. Calvino died when he had only worked out five themes: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity.

Adams built his composition mainly around the first three characteristics. There is a regular emphasis on high registers (lightness); the driving triplets give the piece an enormous velocity (quickness); the carefully dosed syncopations and irregular rhythms testify of his love for structure (exactitude).


This is also evident in his second source of inspiration: the concerto grosso, which was popular in the Baroque era. The string orchestra is divided into two groups: a string quartet – similar to the concertino – and a thirteen-piece string ensemble that also includes a double bass.

But Adams gives his own twist to the genre: instead of placing the two groups opposite each other like rivals, he subverts the traditional hierarchy by having them work together, hence the subtitle ‘for us and them’.

In what he himself describes as ‘role fluidity’, both groups – and within them the individual musicians – are constantly changing roles. Sometimes they team up or even merge, but continuously new soloists detach themselves from both ensembles, now playing a sweet love song or wistful lament, then a jolly tune or a Scottish-style dance. The other strings produce a heartbeat of muffled pizzicati, knot a luscious carpet of sustained sounds, or play counter-melodies.


The furious tempo is abruptly halted several times on an eighth note in triple sforzando, after which the dense fabric breaks open and a moment of relaxation sets in. Adams repeats this trick at the end. After an exceptionally frenetic passage and a sledgehammer exclamation mark (‘sfff possibile’), the piece ends in deep quietude.

The soft tones fading away into nothingness create the impression of a collective sigh of relief: we’ve finally reached our goal…


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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3 Responses to Sam Adams’ take on Concerto grosso premieres in Concertgebouw: Movements (for us and them)

  1. Pingback: Alma Quartet joins forces with Dominique Vleeshouwers for an exciting musical adventure | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  2. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Wow, Thea … I had to “go to Amsterdam” to find out about a young composer from California! Thank you for yet another interesting and informative article.


  3. Pingback: Thomas Larcher: ‘Each composition is an excavation from my past’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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