05 Dec 2022

JOHN ADAMS: The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – JOHN ADAMS (b. 1947) – Few American composers have an opera catalogue as robust or varied as that of John Adams. Carlisle Floyd comes close, and Philip Glass has perhaps set a bar too high for anyone to reach, but Adams has earned his reputation as one of our country’s greatest living opera creators through savvy thematic choices and a roguish toughness in the face of controversy. His highly personal musical language is present throughout his stage music career, of course, but the subjects he tackles are varied and thought-provoking. From The Death of Klinghoffer to The Gospel According to the Other Mary to Doctor Atomic, a John Adams production might not always illicit protest, but intense conversation is a common guarantee.

THE HISTORY – Nixon in China, based on the American President’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic, was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 1987. While completing that score, Adams was inspired to coincidentally explore the topic in a stand-alone concert piece he called The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra. As always, nobody writes better about a John Adams piece than John Adams. He describes The Chairman Dances as “an ‘outtake’ of Act III of Nixon in China.Neither an ‘excerpt’ nor a ‘fantasy on themes from’, it was in fact a kind of warmup for embarking on the creation of the full opera.” Adams admits that, at that moment in 1985, he was behind on a commission project for the Milwaukee Symphony and found inspiration in the scenario he had been presented for his new opera’s final Act. “So,” he continues, “The Chairman Dances began as a foxtrot for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled ‘Madame Mao, firebrand, revolutionary, executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress.” As promised by Adams’ explanation, the scenario of The Chairman Dances indeed departs slightly from the related moment in the opera that influenced it. To better explain the divergence, he included a synopsis of the orchestral work in the score, in which we learn that “Madame Mao has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and split up the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone…”

John Adams
John Adams

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1985, the Live Aid concerts took place around the world, New Coke was introduced to disastrous effect, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro was highjacked.

THE CONNECTION – The most recent performances of The Chairman Dances by Utah Symphony where in 2005 under the baton of Scott O’Neil.