The Prom concert on Tuesday night was given by the BBC Symphony and John Adams, with pianist Olli Mustonen. The big event of the evening was the first performance of Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, a big instrumental piece based on scenes from his opera of the same name. In this project he was consciously following the example of Hindemith with Mathis der Mahler in not merely assembling a sort of suite from the opera, but recomposing the material into a related but nonetheless independent symphonic composition. In a pre-concert talk Adams said that the task had been much more difficult and time consuming than he had at first envisioned: what he had assumed he could do in a month actually took seven. His main problem was with the reworking of the original music, containing vocal lines, as a completely instrumental texture including those lines as instrumental parts in a completely convincing way.

The symphony is in four movements, The first, The Laboratory, from the beginning of the opera is set in Robert Oppenheimer’s laboratory, and includes what in the opera was a choral setting of text from a book about the military uses of atomic weapons; the second, The Bedroom, is based primarily on music setting a poem by Baudelaire which is a set piece in a scene in the opera for Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty; Panic, the third movement, the most extended, uses music from the second act having to do anxiety about whether or not the bomb will actually work (and other kinds of panic, Adams said); the concluding movement, Trinity, is an intensely sorrowful song based on the opera’s climactic music, sung by Oppenheim, setting the Donne sonnet, Batter My Heart Three Personed God. The symphony is a wonderful piece, serious in its intent and imposing in its execution, and always compelling and engaging. It is gorgeously orchestrated, full of beautiful lines, beautifully written for the instruments and completely sure in its dramatic trajectory and timing. (Adams should write a tuba concerto immediately; the writing for tuba was especially imaginative and effective.) It was exciting to hear it, and it makes me want to hear the whole opera as soon as possible. If there’s any quibble about it, it might be that so many of the tunes are in the horn, the trombone, and the bassoons. Adams spoke about this in his talk. Most of the music he used in the symphony involves men’s singing parts, and he put them in instruments which have the same range. The exception to this is the last movement, based on the Donne setting, which he moved up in register and turned into a wonderful trumpet megasolo. One might wish that he had spread the other voice parts over the entire register and timbre of the orchestra as well.

Adams the opera composer has a pretty near perfect sense of how long things should go on and when something different should happen. Century Rolls, a big piano concerto, suggests that Adams the instrumental composer doesn’t. It seemed to me that each of the three movements went on too long, the first movement most egregiously, being, to my mind, about twice too long.
(I presume there was some kind of process going on which caused this to happen.) The instrumental writing, although engaging and interesting, also lacked anything like the specificity of the beautifully shaped former vocal lines in the Doctor Atomic Symphony, and although the piano part seemed plenty hard, it also most of the time was just part of the general texture, rather than standing out in any way. The exception to this was the second movement, which was very beautiful. It’s title is Manny’s Gym, Manny being Emmanuel Ax, for whom it was written, and the Gym in this case being a Gymnopedie; the quality of the piece as a Gymnopedie is not immediately apparent, but is gradually revealed, presumably also systematically somehow. The third movement, Hail Bop, was intended, apparently, as a sort of tribute both to bebop lines and to Nancarrow, but didn’t actually seem much different in character or method from the first movement. The performances of both the Adams pieces seemed to be near perfect.

The concert began with an excellent performance of the suite from Billy the Kid by Copland. For my money, this is the best of the Copland ballets; it’s always interesting and inventive and always, however pompous it may be to put it like this, music of substance, which, it seems to me, can’t be said for the other two. In his pre-concert talk, Adams said that he thought that the ‘populist’ Copland pieces were better than his other pieces. With all due respects to Mr. Adams, this seems to me to be quite foolish. Not that I want to make the opposite case, but rather I’d like to do away with the distinction. The manner of Billy the Kid, the way it’s put together and the way it works, is really not different from the manner of the Sextet/Short Symphony, for instance, and, for that matter, even with the cowboy tunes, it doesn’t sound all that different; nor does Music for the Theater, say, sound all that different, really, from even the Lincoln Portrait. Arthur Berger, when he wrote a review of the Piano Sonata in the 1940’s (hailing it as evidence of Copland’s return to his ‘asbsract’ style) got a rebuke from Copland for making the distinction between his ‘popular’ and ‘abstract’ (I think those were Berger’s terms) works; to Copland it all just seemed to be just his music. (Nowadays, I think people would probably list the Piano Sonata among the populist pieces, anyway, which says something about the validity of the distinction.) Generally, when somebody tries to make a lot of the difference, as Mr. Adams did, they’re not really trying to say anything much about the music so much as they’re just trying to take an opportunity to bash modernism, as Mr. Adams went on to do, and I’m not sure how much anybody gains from that.

The concert (and possibly the pre-concert talk) can be heard online at

28 Responses to “John Adams at the Proms”
  1. Eric Lin says:

    Well, that’s the thing isn’t it? Not only is there an uptown/downtown divide, there is actually an American/European divide. A lot of European music is haphazardly put into the uptown category, by those less familiar with the European scene. In my opinion, much of so called American uptown music is utterly a bore while the European stuff is exciting. There’s also a reason why the Europeans have embraced people like Carter and Reich and Feldman (a diverse group to say the least) while ignoring other prominent Americans. The aesthetic differences are definitely more intricate than the uptown/downtown distinction.

  2. zeno says:

    I read yesterday a blurb by a highly respected critic praising the beauty of Andrew Imbrie’s String Quartets #5 and #6. And I’m still awaiting a recording of Imbrie’s dance-oratorio, Prometheus Unbound, from the early 1980s. … I listened yesterday to Jonathan Harvey’s beautiful Passion and Resurrection, which was apparently composed in about 1981, but not recorded until a few years back. Mr Harvey can hardly be called either an uptown nor a downtown composer. I find it fascinating when beautiful works are finally recorded and released after, often, delays of a decade or two.

  3. Rodney Lister says:

    Not necessarily along the imaginary uptown/downtown axis, but ,yes, the import of my comment was that there’s alot of times a double standard.

  4. David Toub says:

    Rodney, judging from the good-natured flack I get every time I diss MB, I am not sure your premise is correct. And are you saying there’s a double standard here, that uptown music is dismissed or ignored more readily than downtown music? For starters, Adams is so not downtown.

  5. Rodney Lister says:

    o.k., I’ll admit, I’d never hear Century Rolls before. I’ll go further and admit that mostly, despite it obvious seriousness and it’s undeniable masterlyness, I’m not much interested in Adams’s music. I may be wrong, but I have the sense that most of the people who write on Seq21 wouldn’t mind the out of hand dismissal of a piece by Babbitt, and that few of them would say that you should really give it a second listen or you should have know an available recording. Would it be as important to listen further and harder to say the Babbitt 6th quartet, or one of the Davies Naxos quartets, or some of the Finnissy Verdi transcriptions? And, if not, why?

  6. Tom Myron says:

    The Copland on that program was pretty bad.

    The very first downbeat is a mess.

    …“originality” [is] a bogus value cherished by a few who hoe that row and is irrelevant except to people who don’t matter to any self-respecting composer anyway, i.e., other composers and a few especially pretentious critics.

    Agreed. And the composers who are regularly touted as original are no more so than Adams.

  7. Steve Hicken says:

    That’s an interesting point about his conducting.

    The Copland on that program was pretty bad.

  8. fingers says:

    About Century Rolls – that Proms performance was not good. The Ax recording is way better, so much better that it pretty much sounds like a different work. It’s good music, even if it could have, like practically everything Adams writes, been made more effective with a trim of around twenty percent of the material. About the symphony – Adams might have done better to invent some sort of one-movement-enclosing-a-suite thingy as a form, but still, there’s some interesting stuff in there, it just doesn’t jell well, at least not under his baton. But you know, relative to other new stuff, it really wasn’t that bad – nobody cares about “originality” anyway; it’s a bogus value cherished by a few who hoe that row and is irrelevant except to people who don’t matter to any self-respecting composer anyway, i.e., other composers and a few especially pretentious critics.

    Mainly, though, it’s painfully obvious that Adams shouldn’t conduct except in an emergency – I’ve heard him do it too many times, and professional conductors are invariably better at presenting his stuff than he is.

  9. david toub says:

    Frank, my snarkiness is indeed atypical for me, but I’m being snarky to make a point, and that’s that Doctor Atomic disappointed me. I’m glad that the general public liked it, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all (I agree that those folks who preferred being booed were dysfunctional). But it also begs the question as to whether that’s what it takes, regrettably, to be loved by the masses. I don’t find anything particularly profound, compelling or noteworthy about JA’s recent music. I love a lot of his stuff, but I agree with a previous thread that perhaps he had to churn out some stuff quickly, and the well was dry. That’s my explanation for Glass’s mass production line.

    I really wish similar reactions greeted music by Palestine, Feldman, Nancarrow, etc. The reality is that it will probably never happen for a lot of reasons. I’m not bothered by the fact that Adams’ music is well received. I think that’s great. I’m bothered by the fact that Adams’ music is well received and so much music that I think is far more original just isn’t. It’s like how Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals are very popular, and that’s fine, but why not some other things that are more original than anything ALW ever wrote? Just venting, that’s all.

    Daniel, it’s true we all steal from each other. And from ourselves, but a lot of us, I suspect, limit our self-robberies. Glass once said something to the effect that if he had written essentially Music in 12 Parts over and over again, a lot of folks would have loved that but it wouldn’t be interesting to him. I agree—one can rehash, certainly, but one’s music I think also should evolve.

  10. Daniel G. says:

    Composers really only have a 4-5 trademark ideas (one teacher called them arrows in the bag) that you use, and whether you like it or not, your music time and time again will be genuinely “you” because of these tendencies. So I don’t fault John Adams for rehashing himself or any other composer for that matter. Don’t we all steal from each other? No shame in that!

  11. I see why it got quite an ovation at the end of the stream—it was safe music

    Sorry David, but your seemingly uncharacteristic snarkiness here seems all too suspiciously close to a famous quote from Henryk Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People which I’ll translate/paraphrase/mangle here as: “The general public is always wrong.”

    This notion, sadly, has driven so-called classical music to the point of almost complete irrelevance with the general public. Once upon a time I used to join the chorus of composers who thought they were cool if their pieces were booed; now I think it’s sort of immature. I was in Cabrillo a few weeks ago and the audience cheered for almost every piece. I thought that was a really good thing. I was also at the final performance of the operatic version of Dr. Atomic, which also received a very long ovation. I found a great deal of it extremely moving, especially the Act 1 closing aria which sets one of John Donne’s holy sonnets. If there was any justice in teh world, a recording of this would already be available so I can hear this again instead of desperately trying to recreate it in my head from looking at the score and relying on a memory that is oversaturated from listening to so much music all the time.

    I know this sounds all too peace and love in our less than peace and love times, but rather than cutting down the folks who are more famous than all of us, mightn’t it be more constructive to consider their success a success for all of the music we do, which certainly can use the success as we all too well know? Might the greater success, say, of this symphony, make more folks eager to hear your mashup of it? I know I’m eager to hear it 🙂

  12. mike maguire says:

    Dr Atomic sounded like disconnected, sample movie cues for mid-town over-orchestrators. Often when composers are successful, it is impossible to keep up with commissions— and often they overbook thinking their Herculean effort will suffice—when in the end, because of all the frenetic output, the well has long gone dry— all they can do is go into numb orchestration mode. A lot of his work show’s he’s obviously very talented–best take a long holiday from careerism and regroup….

  13. david toub says:

    I listened to Dr. Atomic.

    I’m amazed no one’s suing for malpractice.

    By 13 minutes, I was thinking “I’m bored”

    Then the next section came, with some very fast difficult writing for strings that, to my ears, was written idiomatically and using the IVth string (G), and was pretty good.

    But by 30 minutes, I was thinking “Why am I still listening to this crap”

    Mind you, I am not suggesting that my lack of enthusiasm for this piece should be universal or that someone is wrong if they really end up loving the piece. And perhaps with repeated listenings it will suddenly hit me. But right now, it’s boring, over-orchestrated, and frankly old-fashioned. I see why it got quite an ovation at the end of the stream—it was safe music for the people who like same old, same old, and the others were perhaps applauding because after nearly 50 minutes, this dreckstucke was over.

    Sorry…did I say that?

    Brings up a related point—why do so many new music composers seem to go to shit once they hit the “big time?” Glass, Reich, Riley, Adams…all of them wrote much better and more inspired, original music when they were still young and cutting edge. It’s like how so many scientists no longer do much research of consequence once they’ve won the Nobel Prize. It’s such a waste—Adams is an amazing orchestrator and his early works had so much to say. Lately, all I hear is bombast and nothing original. If I wanted to listen to a mix of Symphony in Three Movements with Short Ride in a Fast Machine, I’d do the mashup myself on my computer. But I don’t want that, and that’s part of the problem with Doctor Atomic. Maybe it needs the voices to work…I dunno.

  14. David Adams says:

    So your hypothesis is that it will improve with repeated hearings, improve with age, or what?

    For me, music as complex as Adams’s demands repeated listenings.

    Mostly, I thought some of the criticisms (ie that the piano part is little more than a part of the orchestral texture) are belied by the excellent recording with Emmanuel Ax, and others (that the second movement is not “immediately” apparent to be a gymnopedie) clearly need another listen (I think the Satie influence is overwhelmingly obvious). Just the tone of the criticism seems like even the author is admitting he needs to listen to the piece again. I would not complain if the piece were a premiere, but Century Rolls has been available on CD for years and has certainly made the tour rounds more than most Adams works.

    Unrelatedly, I’m one of the Adams fans who doesn’t get the Violin Concerto and Chamber Symphony.

  15. Steve Hicken says:

    Agreed, Frank. What I need from a new piece is a something that brings me back for the subsequent hearings necessary to get the piece.

  16. So your hypothesis is that it will improve with repeated hearings, improve with age, or what?

    In my own listening experience, I tend to get much more from music I hear the second time around. I think it’s extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to fair-mindedly evaluate anything that’s new, which is why classical music perpetuates a canon that everyone can agree on. But of course it is the new that keeps music alive.

  17. david toub says:

    I was disappointed in the author’s strong negative reaction to a work he obviously hadn’t heard before.

    So your hypothesis is that it will improve with repeated hearings, improve with age, or what?

  18. David Adams says:

    Wow, I’m surprised at the reactions to Century Rolls. I think it’s one of Adams’s most inspired works. I was disappointed in the author’s strong negative reaction to a work he obviously hadn’t heard before.

  19. david toub says:

    Of course it’s subjective, Eric. There’s nothing definitive about any of this.

    The problem I have with some of what you consider his “more chromatic and melodic writing” is that it largely sounds contrived. But I don’t know that most of the music of his that made my cut isn’t melodic or chromatic. Simple Tones perhaps lacks melody, although one person’s melody is another person’s (fill in the blank). But there’s certainly melody in Grand Pianola Music. I suspect Adams is caught in between his initial impulse to be more experimental (as with some of his earlier electronic and minimalist works) and his other impulse to be more like Ellen Taafe Zwillich or something. Remember, he comes from a fairly traditional academic classical background (although in many ways so did Reich and Glass), and in particular has a lot of orchestral time under his belt, so that has to color his writing somewhat I suppose.

    I also forgot to include his early Light Over Water in my list—I’ve always thought that was a great work, although it does drag a tad in the middle. The ending is the same as that of Harmonielehre, but works better in my opinion.

  20. CB says:

    Something funny I just noticed: mvmt 3 of Road Movies quotes Reich’s “Piano Phase” at 52 seconds – goes by so fast you almost miss it, but it’s definitely there.

  21. CB says:

    Something funny I just noticed: mvmt 3 of Road Movies quotes Reich’s “Piano Phase” at 52 seconds – goes by so fast you almost miss it, but it’s definately there.

  22. Eric Lin says:

    Well, David. It’s pretty apparent that you like the minimalist-y stuff more than the more chromatic and melodic writing by Adams. It’s purely a subjective thing I guess, because find that his best stuff to include the Violin Concerto and the Chamber Symphony.

    I never much warmed up to Century Rolls though–I agree that it is one of his truly weak pieces.

  23. david toub says:

    I absolutely agree his output is uneven, often crappy, but the early stuff was pretty inspired. In the case of Naive and Sentimental Music, I have one movement of it on my iPod. That’s it—the rest of it didn’t make the cut. Same with Century Rolls (first movement is fine, the rest—blecch!). His violin concerto I force myself to listen to every now and then since others seem to think it’s a great piece. But the fact that I have to force myself to listen to it seems to me pretty ridiculous.

    So here’s the stuff by Adams I generally like:

    * The Klinghoffer Choruses (I really was into this when I first heard it, but after many listens, it doesn’t stand up the way it used to, but is still worthwhile in parts)
    * Century Rolls (mvmt 1 only)
    * Chain to the Rhythm (from Naive and Sentimental Music)
    * Grand Pianola Music (some people hate it, but I really love it—different strokes for different folks)
    * Harmonielehre (second mvmt is boring, however)
    * Harmonium
    * El Dorado
    * China Gates
    * Phrygian Gates
    * Shaker Loops
    * Fearful Symmetries
    * The Wound Dresser (+/-)
    * Common Tones in Simple Time
    * Ensemble – I Was Looking At the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (the rest of the piece is crap, but the first movement works for me, and my son loves it, so there you go)

    Stuff by Adams that I can’t stand to listen to:

    * Violin Concerto (I’ve given up)
    * Chamber Symphony
    * Most of Nixon in China (~20% is really good stuff, however)

    Just my opinion, mind you. His early stuff is very nice, and he can orchestrate better than most people. But he lost his way somewhere, I think. CUrious to hear Dr. Atomic, however.

  24. Andrew says:

    I am glad to learn that someone else believes that “Billy The Kid” is Copland’s finest ballet score. I have always believed that it is his finest ballet score, too (not that there’s anything wrong with “Appalachian Spring”).

    Interesting comments about the Adams. After “Harmonielehre”, which I very much like, I started to lose interest in Adams.

    I could not agree more with what the author wrote about “Century Rolls”.

    “Naive And Sentimental Music” is the composition that caused me to lose almost ALL interest in Adams. Is there something in that piece that I am missing? It strikes me as dreck. I am told that orchestral musicians despise playing that work.

  25. david toub says:

    Thanks Steve—so you’re saying that it’s not exactly the most original, innovative piece of music out there, but it’s ok nonetheless.

    I still wish orchestras would make their stuff freely downloadable, though. It might help them generate more of an audience,, at least for new music.

  26. Dan Johnson says:

    Amen, re: Adams’ tuba writing. Listen for the solo in Grand Pianola Music–it’s an “oh, so THAT’S what those big brass things are for” moment. Here’s hopin’ there’s somebody out there with deep pockets & sick of playing oompa oomps.

  27. Steve Layton says:

    The Real Audio works just fine for me, David.

    Lesse, I\’ll fill you in with a blow-by blow of the first movement as I listen:

    Channelling Varese (!) through the opening of Harmonielehre, devolving into something close to Vaughn Williams;

    Some snappy weird pseudo-Revueltas-Chavez-Ginastera… here comes the obliggatory \”clack-clack\” wood block, then revisiting Stravinsky\’s Symphony in Three Movements a la Harmonielehre again;

    Slow drift to some slightly boozy-romantic goo with a little Debussy, then some neoclassic skirls, then more Debussy (channeling Iberia big time!), heading into slow Berg-land;

    More Chavez-Revueltas, heading over to Ravel this time. Oops, La Mer now, morphing back into Harmonielehre meeting Daphnis.

    Ooo, now here\’s a nice bit, a few slightly swelling chords with a bass clarinet solo. Can\’t immediately pin that on anyone, but I like it. Good build… but before you know it Daphnis/Debussy is back, big time. But it\’s kind of falling in John Williams territory. Yep, we\’re really into film-music land now…

    It\’s getting a little restless, maybe something building… nope, suddenly, collapsing back to Achille-Claude Williams.

    Open fifths, a celeste \”ding\”, everything\’s pat & we\’re out…

    That said, I liked it OK — at least enough to stay in the seat and enjoy the pretty colors.

  28. david toub says:

    Regrettably, the .ram file doesn’t seem to be working for me. A shame they can’t either stream this as a m3u file or make the thing freely available as a downloadable mp3.