I was listening to a radio program on what makes something popular, in between two events hosted by the SF Symphony to honor Berkeley composer John Adams' birthday. He turned 70 last week. Adams is not hugely popular when compared to, say, Beyonce, but outside of Lang Lang, Placido Domingo or Yo Yo Ma, who in classical music is? Nonetheless, with pieces like Nixon in China (1987) and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning choral piece commemorating victims of the September 11th attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls, he has achieved an enduring success as one of (if not the) most prominent living American composers. To wit, he has written many operas that have reached repertory status and are being staged all over the world. Dr. Atomic was created here for SF Opera, and found its way to the Met, which usually stays away from modern stuff. His next opera, the Girls of the Golden West, will premiere next season with SF Opera. The SF Symphony birthday celebration continues tonight and this week-end with Adams's Sheherazade 2.0 and violinist Leila Josefowicz.

What makes things popular is a combination of neophilia and neophobia, what iconic designer Raymond Loewy called MAYA. That's not "make America yucky again," but "most advanced yet acceptable." The Gospel according to the other Mary fits within the well accepted format of an oratorio based upon the Christian liturgy, with three soloists and a large chorus. Adams' twist on the century old formula is to mix the biblical times representation (say, Lazarus' resurrection) with recent events (say, a strike of farm workers). You know, 'cause it's still current material 2,000 years later. Adams, again with Peter Sellars as his librettist, pieced together his text from poems and Biblical material. They have taken that collage approach before in Dr Atomic or again in the upcoming Girls of the Golden West.

Adams, at 70, has to advance his art not only against the traditional landscape of classical music, but also his own track record. The Gospel takes a step away from the muscular motoring pulse that came to define Adams' style, and finds itself in a more contemplative mood, trending more towards neo-romanticism than minimalism. Adams' appeal always has been to tame the excess of minimalism into a richer harmonic language, but here we missed the tightly wound energy of the insistently repeated chords and arpeggios, the forward push of the raw rhythm. We felt that Lazarus had the right approach throughout Act I, taking a nap on a table/bed on the raised staged behind the orchestra. Still, (spoiler alert) Lazarus resurrects and Adams follows the tried-and-true method of concluding an act on a high point, like a Rossini Quintet or his own Batter My Heart in Dr Atomic, giving people a smile as they head out to intermission. Here, Jay Hunter Morris (Lazarus) unleashes his lyrical tenor and asks the question, "Tell me, how is this night different from all other nights" in a beautifully haunting melancholy setting of "Passover", a poem by Primo Levi.

Women are at the center of the Passion, which focuses on Mary Magdalene (Kelley O’Connor) and her sister Martha (Tamara Mumford). The former is impassioned and the latter is down-to-earth and practical. Both sing a lot in a speaking voice with deep incursion into the lower of their range. A trio of otherwordly counter-tenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley, kinda reminded us of the trio of angels in the Magic Flute. They repeat the Christ' words, as His appearance is only through the eyes of others, and they bring a welcome breath of fresh air in the otherwise rather depressive atmosphere. The chorus and orchestra, led by Grant Gherson, meshed perfectly, after starting off a bit strong and overwhelming Mary's voice in the early stages.

As part of his birthday bash, Adams was invited to current two Soundbox evenings, where he took the position of the wise man reining in younger composers. Soundbox is a venue in the back of Davies Symphony hall converted to host late night contemporary music with a drink in your hand. Adams MC'd and started by telling the story of Aaron Copland visiting his music school. Copland sheepishly admitting he was "intimidated" by the works of Adams' generation. What was then outside of the boundaries of acceptance, even by another composer, was now firmly ensconced in the canon, as new voices are pushing music into new directions. The juxtaposition of Adams' work with that of the younger composers he picked made his look almost quaint and traditional.

Soundbox started with Try by Andrew Norman, a piece that frantically starts with a rush of musical ideas from the chamber orchestra (manned by SF Symphony musicians), and discards them one by one, until it finds a nugget to keep polishing, repeatedly, by a solo piano, slowing down to appreciate its facets again and again. The contrast was striking with Adams' own Hallelujah Junction, a piano duet that takes a fast-slow-fast construction that is classical in comparison, and ends on a boogie flavor that is audience friendly (as opposed to Try's self-absorbed drawn-out completion).

Ashley Fure's Shiver Lung expands physically outside of the boundaries of the orchestra: it spreads out five musicians and two singers on platforms all around the audience. The musicians generate noise from a few instruments (bassoon, saxophone, cello) and speakers that generate sounds outside of the audible range, but whose vibrations can be heared when adding objects on top. The singers breath and yelp in megaphones. Fure decribed it as, and we paraphrase here, some frantic future cry for help seeping into the present. The vibration of the speakers mostly reminded us of the helicopters of Apocalypse Now and we kept waiting for the Ride of the Valkyries to step in. Once you let go of that thought, the immersive and eerie soundscape became ghostly, the human voice oppressed trying to escape over an industrial aural canvas.

Jacob Cooper's Ripple in the Sky featured an octet whose sound is enhanced live and vocalist Jonathan Woody bringing a warm, human tone despite the processing of his voice through the computer. We had never attended Soundbox before, and the space — a rehearsal hall in the back of Davies Symphony hall, which simultaneously hosted a Brahms Symphony that evening — has been spiffed up with inviting furniture and pillows and atmospheric lightings, screens for video projections, a clubby feel, and a long bar that served fancy cocktails. Because the envelope of MAYA expands with a couple drinks in. The audience skewed much younger that on the other stage. When we asked the SF Symphony if it was a way to reach new audiences or make money, the answer was: it works along the same model as for the other concerts, based upon revenues from the audience and help from donors. They sell out every time, so hopefully for the sustainability of such a cool experience, it's more of the former.