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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.