Playing John Adams' "Chamber Symphony" at its 1993 American premiere, cellist Stephen Harrison experienced a mixture of surprise and familiarity. "(It) had a sense of humor, the likes of which I'd never heard before," Harrison recalled. "Some of the music reminded me of what I used to hear when I listened to cartoons." Think Bugs Bunny chase scenes: the careening momentum, the sense of impending climax. "That jack-in-the-box feeling I got when I was a kid was almost irresistible," said Harrison, Stanford senior lecturer in cello as well as cellist with the Palo Alto-based Ives Quartet and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.
After 40-plus years of creating chamber works, orchestral compositions, operas and ensembles, Adams continues to generate surprises. Audiences shouldn't necessarily expect shades of "Kill the Wabbit" -- more properly known as Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" -- when the St. Lawrence String Quartet premieres Adams' "Second Quartet" on Sunday, Jan. 18, at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall. But they should expect shocks of recognition.
The first movement, a sprightly Allegro Molto, is based on phrases from the scherzo of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110. The two-part second movement begins with a slower Andantino inspired by the opening bars of the same piano sonata, before segueing into an Energico inspired by one of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations."
"Good composers borrow and great composers steal," said St. Lawrence String Quartet first violinist Geoff Nuttall, paraphrasing composer Igor Stravinsky. "Adams steals from Beethoven but turns it into Adams. He's totally Adams, but totally connected to the past. Most of the great composers through history have been inspired by what came before them (while) having their own voice -- and John is a perfect example of that."
Apart from the members of the quartet, all of whom are artists in residence at Stanford, few have heard so much as a downbeat from the "Second Quartet."
"It's still in-house," said cellist Christopher Costanza. "It hasn't escaped yet."
Like Adams' "String Quartet" (2008) and "Absolute Jest" (2012), which were both composed with the St. Lawrence String Quartet in mind and altered along the way, the new quartet is a work in progress, as Adams himself admits.
"What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence is their willingness to let me literally 'improvise' on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want," Adams said in a press release from Stanford Live. "They will go the distance with me, allow me to try and fail, and they will indulge my seizures of doubt, frustration and indecision, all the while providing intuitions and frequently brilliant suggestions of their own."
"He's willing to give and take," said Nuttall, who has been rehearsing the new piece at Adams' home in Berkeley, along with Costanza, second violinist Mark Fewer and violist Lesley Robertson. The piece is one of three new works commissioned to celebrate the quartet's 25th anniversary.
"One of the great joys of playing new music in general is that we spend so much of our time playing music by dead people," Nuttall added. "When we get a score from John, there are always an amazing number of changes in terms of articulation and tempo and gesture and vibe -- even orchestration and pitches. ... It's a real gift not only to have him write a piece for us but be willing and able to work with us so closely in preparation for the premiere."
In Sunday's concert, Adams' new work will be sandwiched between pieces by storied "dead people": Haydn's String Quartet No. 5 in F minor, Op. 20, and Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131.
"We feel very strongly about playing new work this way," Costanza said. "It's quite rewarding ... to see how the evolution has gone."
The challenge in playing Adams, he added, is "the complexity of rhythms -- rhythms that don't line up with the time signatures but sound really cool."
That's because Adams' inspirations come not only from Beethoven and Bach, but from Broadway, blues and big band. He sometimes treats the cello as if it were a bass in a jazz quartet or a rock band, beating out the rhythm. "I feel like my role is to provide that strong grounding," said Costanza, qualifying, "that rhythmic drive is offset by a singing, lyrical quality."
Over the years, Adams' music has engendered its share of controversy along with kudos. The New York Metropolitan Opera's recent revival of his 1991 opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," has fomented protests over what some call a pro-Palestinian slant. Adams' minimalist instrumental pieces have occasionally caused critics to raise their eyebrows. Among these is "Grand Pianola Music," which Adams refers to in his autobiography, "Hallelujah Junction," as "a P.T. Barnum of a work. ... It is my truant child, the one that antagonizes those listeners overburdened with good taste."
Coincidentally, Adams conducts that work this weekend with the San Francisco Symphony. On Sunday, following an afternoon performance in the city, he'll hop in the car for "Second Quartet"'s evening premiere at Stanford.
"He's gonna be a busy guy this weekend," said Costanza, who doesn't expect raised eyebrows at Bing, emphasizing that Adams' treatment of Beethoven is "respectful."
"He's writing pure music about what interests him musically," Costanza noted.
Given the sheer breadth of Adams' music, he's not a composer who can be easily pigeonholed.
"Although John Adams is often labeled a minimalist, his music defies categorization," wrote Jonathan Berger, composer and Stanford music professor, in an email interview. "Just when he seems to be veering toward repetitive patterns, he will introduce a highly expressive, lyrical turn. A strong sense of spontaneity imbues even his most process-oriented music. It is no surprise at all that the St. Lawrence Quartet and John Adams have found one another as collaborators. Both Adams' music and the SLSQ's performance are a magical blend of intellect and intuition, of witty surprise and sophistication."
What: St. Lawrence String Quartet premieres John Adams' 'Second Quartet'
Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford
When: Sunday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m.
Cost: $30-$75; $15 students
Info: Go to live.stanford.edu or call 650-724-2464.