John Kenneth Adams – a life and love of piano music and teaching

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In the early 1960s, John Kenneth Adams was teaching on a year-to-year contract at the University of Texas. During a trip to Yale University School of Music, his alma mater, the school secretary saw him passing in the hall and called out “Jack, I’ve got a job for you – someone in South Carolina is forming an orchestra and they want someone who can play.”

That someone was Arthur Fraser, chairman of the University of South Carolina Department of Music.

When Adams arrived at the university there was no School of Music, just a Department of Music, located on the edge of campus in a former grammar school.  The faculty was tiny, resources were few. The orchestra was the community and university-based Columbia Festival Orchestra. He stayed for nearly 40 years, playing a significant role in the expansion of the Department of Music to the School of Music, starting a music series that has become a mainstay of classical music in Columbia, and helping transform the Festival Orchestra into the South Carolina Philharmonic.

All during that time, he also maintained an active, globe-spanning career.

“I always felt the university appreciated me and let me develop in my own way,” said Adams.

John Adams has a reputation as a demanding teacher, which he readily acknowledges, but he’s just as well known for his positive and supporting attitude, enthusiasm for life, and bright, quick smile.

Since his retirement in 2002, Adams has continued performing and teaching. Each summer since the Southeastern Piano Festival was founded in 2003, he has taught there. The 2012 Festival will be Adams’ last on the Festival faculty.

“John Kenneth Adams, my treasured colleague and friend, has been an integral part of the Southeastern Piano Festival from the very beginning,” said Marina Lomazov, Festival Director.  “In addition to contributing his immeasurable talents to serving in virtually all capacities including being a chair of the Arthur Fraser International Concerto Competition adjudication panel, guest artist, guest lecturer, and a festival faculty member, John has also played a vital role as a mentor and adviser in shaping the festival’s past and its future.”

Like the students who come to the Piano Festival, Adams started early. Unlike most of them he first learned to play by ear. A native of Birmingham, Ala., he came from a family of “great ears,” Adams said. “They could just sit down and play. By the time I was three I was picking out things on the piano.”

He first played the accordion and began taking piano lessons at age 10. When Adams was 13 the family moved to Kansas City which had a profound impact on the budding musician.

“The city always had a fine musical life – a good orchestra and a big conservatory,” he said. “It was a great fortune for me to be there.”

He took piano lessons in Kansas City and attended the Aspen Music Festival in its earliest years as a scholarship student of Joanna Graudan, a protégé of Artur Schnabel. He also took master classes with Carl Friedburg, who had studied with Clara Schumann.

“The first lesson I had with (Friedburg) changed my life,” Adams recalled. “He said ‘You have such a gift.’ No one had said that to me before.”

Along with a fine orchestra and conservatory, Kansas City also had a well-heeled patron, the grocery store magnate Victor Wilson who established a scholarship for music students to attend the University of Kansas City or Yale University. Adams was awarded the scholarship to attend University of Kansas where he earned his bachelor’s degree and then to study at Yale.

“Yale was a wonderful experience – it was the first time I had ever been immersed in a total music environment,” Adams said.

At Yale, Adams had a distinguished record winning awards and performing with the orchestra. On a Fulbright Scholarship he attended the Royal Academy of Music in London for two summers.

After completing studies at Yale and overseas, in 1961 he accepted a position at the University of Texas.

One of his students at Texas was Gordon “Dick” Goodwin. “I was there as a theory/composition student and he was a junior faculty member who got assigned folks like me,” Goodwin said. “His interests were so much broader than I expected. He knew I was playing nightclub gigs and could talk about jazz.  I was an undergraduate, a non-pianist and pretty undisciplined. He was really perceptive about what I could and could not do. He selected pieces with me in mind and gave lessons that were really designed for me.”

(Adams and Goodwin became music faculty colleagues when Goodwin was hired at USC in the 1970s.)

Dick Goodwin’s wife Winifred Goodwin was one of Adams’ early students at USC.

“I was told ‘The person you need to study with is John Adams,’” said Winifred Goodwin, long-time staff pianist at the School of Music. “I remember being terrified of this man, but he was a really good teacher. Everything he did was individual. He was really perceptive.”

Billy Shepherd of Camden studied with Adams for a decade starting at age 12.

“He had a way of allowing students to find their own way,” said Shepherd who is in The Upton Trio. “He encouraged my musicality. He was always eager to share what he knew with me and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature.

“He’s just a good teacher period – and a generous teacher.”

Chris Sarzen first studied with Adams in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as an undergraduate music student. Recently Sarzen, a doctor in Atlanta, returned to Adams’ studio. He’s thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Adams at such different stages of life – and at both stages Adams is a great teacher.

“He’s not the sort of person who says do this or do that,” Sarzen said. “He looks at the larger picture. He lets each person listen to themselves objectively and figure it out. He suggests things that end up allowing you to open your mind and solve problems.”

The early years at USC were lean, but exciting. Adams recalled: “We were small but we were good.”

One of his first concerts in the city was with the Columbia Festival Orchestra performing in a field house with the audience seated on bleachers.

“I played three encores – and have never played as many since,” he said. “It was a good start and I never looked back.”

He began a concert series which grew into the still-thriving September Concert Series.  With Dr. Arthur Fraser he established the annual concerto/aria competition which continues. He and other music faculty traveled around the world to attract students to USC and during the 1980s made many recruiting trips to South Korea.

Along with his tireless work at the School of Music, Adams has led a robust performing career. In the 1970s he began touring South America, Europe and the Far East under the auspices of the United States Information Agency. In later years he created his signature “Piano Portraits” of Bach, Mozart, Debussy and others combining piano performance and visual arts which he has presented more than 200 times. Adams has also been at the forefront of new music, giving the first South Carolina performances of Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never be Defeated,” “Phrygian Gates” by John Adams and Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms No. 6” for piano and electronic sounds. He still regularly performs in the United States and abroad.

“I’m now playing eight to ten times a year – once a month is a gracious plenty,” Adams said. “I’m 77 and astounded I can still play. It’s very important to me to keep going. Even when I’m not playing in public I’ll still be playing.”

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