Doctor Atomic SymphonyDoctor Atomic Symphony

John Adams

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra

conducted by David Robertson

Nonesuch Records

I’ve been excited about this music for several years, ever since I heard about the opera project on NPR back in maybe 2005.   When reviews starting coming in, well, everyone reading this probably already knows what the reviews said.   Any failings in the libretto were usually balanced by praise for the music.   My experience with the opera itself lasted all of 30 minutes.   I was watching it on PBS, bored out of my skull, and fell asleep before the end of the first act.   My wife stuck it out for half of the second act at which point she gave up, too.

So again, I was excited to hear the music and not be distracted by a story which seemed to be about physics and the dietary intake of military officers.   In general, I like the music of the Doctor Atomic Symphony but it does suffer away from its dramatic context.   The brief opening movement, “The Laboratory” is quite an ear-catcher.   The two and a half minutes are driving, engaging, and my favorite part of the symphony.   The long center movement, “Panic,” languishes a bit too much for my tastes.   The form revolves around recurring brass solos, all very well played, but I never get the feeling that the movement is leading anywhere.   “Panic” kind of sprawls around for fourteen and a half minutes.   Divorced from what drama was in the opera, the music can’t seem to find its own internal trajectory.   At times, it ends up sounding like a soundtrack for a movie I haven’t seen.   Strangely enough, I’ll write about this very thing in my next review.   The final movement, “Trinity” pulls things together nicely.   Fast and driving, much more filled with a sense of urgency than the previous “Panic” movement, “Trinity” has a satisfying dramatic formal arc and a wider range of expressed emotional content.

Perhaps I am judging the work too harshly since I had such high expectations.   I have found Adams’ more recent work to be a bit on the unfocused and sprawling side of the spectrum which is a far cry from the tightly focused and forward moving pieces that I have enjoyed so much.   Perhaps I need to spend more time with the opera but, as a wise man once said, “A bad libretto is like bone disease.”

It should probably come as little surprise that I think Guide to Strange Places is the real sleeper hit on this CD.   From 2001 (the year, not the movie), THIS is the kind of music that I like from Adams.   The energy rolls right along with Adams’ characteristic orchestrational tricks but around 4 minutes in the air gets let out and we go into a “strange place.”   Transitions into foreign areas abound as a formal technique in this piece but I found each transition effective and engaging as well as each of the musical vignettes that they connect.   I’m especially a fan of the low brass and woodwind groan/grunt section around the 13 minute mark.   THIS piece, to my ears, is a Symphony.   The music is varied yet coherent, engaging yet new, and extremely well performed.

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