David Robertson

John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony

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John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony Review

by Stephen Eddins

John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony is the composer's third concert work related to one of his large-scale operas, each having a unique relationship to the opera with which it is connected. Adams wrote The Chairman Dances around the time he was starting to work on Nixon in China; he describes the piece as a "warm-up" for the opera, and its music is closely related to that of the last scene. The Choruses from the Death of Klinghoffer are lifted unaltered from the opera, which since 9/11 has become so weighted with political interpretations that it may be generations before it can be produced again. The music for the Doctor Atomic Symphony is derived from the opera, but it's reimagined and reworked in a way that's somewhat analogous to Prokofiev's use of music from The Fiery Angel as the basis for his Third Symphony.

Adams' three-movement work is very little like a traditional symphony in form or feeling; it seems more like an orchestral meditation on thematic material from the opera. "Meditation" is perhaps too mild a description, since this work, like the opera, has a prevailing tone of foreboding and frenzied anxiety about an imminent calamity whose extent and proportions are unknown. If the piece feels more programmatic than symphonic, it's primarily an issue of semantics, but it may do the work a disservice by creating particular expectations in the listener. The music's logic operates on a subliminal rather than a rational level and requires the listener to viscerally respond, rather than trying to make sense of what is going on. That has been Adams' modus operandi in many of his large orchestral works since Harmonielehre. The symphony is a more fragmented and stylistically disjunct work than Harmonielehre, and its full impact may be reserved for listeners willing to relinquish the need to figure it out and just let it viscerally hit them. Its episodic nature may be the composer's means of keeping the audience in a state of nervous anticipation, as he does so brilliantly in the opera, particularly in the final scene.

The version recorded here lasts about 25 minutes. The original version was in four movements and lasted 42 minutes. It may someday be revealed why Adams scrapped the original second movement, the equivalent of an adagio, which was based on the music of J. Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer's languorous bedroom scene. In any case, the symphony in its present form feels too short. The first movement, at two and a half minutes, is over before it gets going, and the last movement feels truncated. In the opera, Adams masterfully built to an ending of almost unbearable tension. It's a shame he didn't trust the concert audience enough to give it the time to experience some of that excitement by allowing the finale the time to unfold at the pace it requires, rather than simply cutting it off.

The CD is filled out by Adams' marvelously titled Guide to Strange Places, written in 2001, which in one movement is nearly as long as the symphony. It's a kind of moto perpetuo, but with considerably more rhythmic complexity than is usually associated with the genre, and its ending fades into wisps of sound rather than building to a tremendous climax. The music has a whimsical quality that nicely contrasts with the symphony; Adams has written about the duality of his creative nature, the serious artist and the Trickster, and the pairing of these two pieces is certainly a not unconscious illustration of that polarity.

David Robertson leads the Saint Louis Symphony in wonderfully spirited and precise performances of these difficult works. Nonesuch's sound is clean and present, allowing the details of orchestration to clearly be heard.

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