Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, taiko drum, chimes, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tom-tom, djembe, and marimba), keyboard, electric bass, and string
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: 2019
About this Piece
The brief but scintillating I Still Dance was composed by John Adams in honor of the final, 25th season of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ tenure at the San Francisco Symphony. Inscribed “for my longtime friends, Joshua and Michael,” the score is dedicated to MTT and his husband, Joshua Robison. I Still Dance celebrates “the continued youthful vitality” of MTT himself, as well as of his spouse, a former gymnast. “They both still have a youthful energy,” Adams has remarked.
Crafted with immense intricacy and pointillist detail, I Still Dance takes its place alongside a small but highly characterful group of short orchestral pieces in Adams’ catalog. Without any existing models in mind, Adams says that his starting point for I Still Dance was “a powerful musical energy” that took him to unexpected places: Once the wrestling with a piece has begun, “I never know what is going to come down the pike.”
I Still Dance sustains an explosive, relentless intensity from the first downbeat through most of its span. At the same time, Adams condenses multiple events and an enormous amount of contrast within this framework, creating in effect a pocket symphony. The driving energy comes from perpetual-motion figurations undergirded by fiercely accentuated chords and deep, rumbling pulsation.
Echoes of Adams’ early style are discernible, like the light from distant stars. For example, the composer has commented on the lasting impression made by “the signature jabs and ‘bullets’ of the brass” from Duke Ellington’s band, one of his early musical loves. These gestures link Short Ride and the opera Nixon in China with later works like Doctor Atomic (especially its storm and countdown scenes) and similarly punctuate I Still Dance.
Adams weaves his material into an electrifying tapestry of contrapuntal rhythms, wheeling arpeggios, and prismatic harmonies. The sort of obsessively repeated, Beethoven-inspired rhythmic motifs explored in such relatively recent works as Absolute Jest acquire even greater force against this kaleidoscopic backdrop.
I Still Dance presses forward unpredictably, a constant volley of pithy motifs in multiple directions across the soundscape generated by its vast orchestra. Bright flecks of melody from winds and tuned percussion drift by without warning.
In recent scores, Adams has shown a fascination with the sound of bass guitar (a subtle but key element, for example in his piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?—here fortified by the Japanese taiko as well as the djembe, a goblet-shaped drum originating from West Africa.
But just as the churning maelstrom of energy seems poised to rouse for a climax, Adams dims the lights for what he describes as a “soft landing.” Suspenseful, with a dash of the elegiac, this concluding wind- down seems to cleave the dancer from the dance. —Thomas May