JOHN ADAMS: Doctor Atomic Symphony; Guide to Strange Places – Saint Louis Symphony/ David Robertson – Nonesuch

by | Sep 4, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JOHN ADAMS: Doctor Atomic Symphony; Guide to Strange Places – Saint Louis Symphony/ David Robertson – Nonesuch 468220-2, 47:02 ****:

If you want to watch a really scary opera late some evening, obtain the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (Opus Arte). It’s about Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the creation and testing of the first atomic bomb. The music is not all disquieting; there are even periods of calm before the emotional storms. But enough of it is truly harrowing. Nonesuch has now released the Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on themes from the opera. The first section, “The Laboratory,” is portentous and brooding, but the second and longest part, “Panic” may have you pacing around the room if you’re not careful with the volume. The third section, “Trinity,” is oddly conducive to creative thought. I solved a particularly vexing computer problem while listening to its blend of soothing brass interludes and sudden percussion, urgent and demanding attention, like bubbling stew in the kitchen. Listen closely for the ending: one loud strike of the tympani. You won’t forget this piece too soon.

The disc’s second work, Guide to Strange Places, has a similar mixture of illusive calm jumbled with disquiet, but not at quite the same level. Like much of Adams’ brand of minimalism, it’s sometimes hard to draw a bead on what he’s getting at. He injects much of his signature canonic imitation, exact repetitions of the same material, with new figures that seep in like basement leaks. But where is it all going? How will it end? Will there be a magnificent conclusion or will the curtain be drawn abruptly before we catch a glimpse? Despite its title, it’s more like a train ride through a tourist hotspot—New Hampshire’s Cog Railway at Mount Washington or Colorado’s Pike’s Peak near Denver, with their steep ascents and colorful vistas. Adams has such splendid control of tempo he keeps the piece moving, well out of snoozing’s grasp. Like the Doctor Atomic Symphony, there’s nothing in this motoric repetition that’s tedious or predictable. At one point, Adams injects a staccato melody on percussion that repeats for a few bars, then is subdued by a sweeping string theme. It then mutates, turning into a ghostly Gershwinesque jazz refrain–but not for long. (Nothing is ever for long with John Adams.) At another point, a series of tympani strikes, slightly out of phase, mixes with emphatic brass refrains. And so it goes, always intriguing, but more like mood sets than conventional developing themes. Both works are well worth listening to, nonetheless. Several times.

— Peter Bates

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