JOHN ADAMS: Dr. Atomic Symphony; Guide to Strange Places – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson – Nonesuch

by | Dec 22, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JOHN ADAMS: Dr. Atomic Symphony; Guide to Strange Places – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/  David Robertson – Nonesuch, 47 minutes ****:

With the heroes of my Sixties youth—R. Crumb and Bob Dylan, the joker and the jack of hearts—releasing blatantly mainstream (and religious) works within months of each other (Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart, Crumb’s non-ironical The Book  of Genesis), I was pleased to find revolt and innovation still alive in composer John Adams.

The Dr. Atomic Symphony doesn’t waste time establishing an atmosphere of mid-century anxiety and unease. Based on Adams’ opera Dr. Atomic, this work cobbles together themes of dislocation, fear, and guilt in J. Robert Oppenheimer as he works to create the atomic bomb via the Manhattan Project. While technically not a symphony (no unity between the three movements, no thematic development, variation, or mirroring), there’s enough excitement in this work to recommend it. The scurrying strings and brass poundings in “Panic” are so visceral you may want to haul someone else into the room to listen with you. And in “Trinity,” the final section, the transformation of the opera’s most notable aria into a symphonic climax is quite artful. Here the singer becomes a melancholy trumpet. Several times it’s punctured by the harsh motoric chords of the orchestra. Does this represent the individual pitted against the machinery of annihilation? Perhaps. Only seven minutes long, this compact section clinches the work.

According to John Adams, the title Guide to Strange Places refers to a French book he’d encountered, but its musical heritage is more concrete: Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, some of Harrison Birwhistle’s orchestral pieces, György Ligeti’s Lontano. The list of musical inspiration could go on for at least another paragraph. Like the Dr. Atomic Symphony, Guide to Strange Places is a thrilling, frenetic whirlpool of aural constructions and destructions. It begins harmlessly enough, with swirly strings and fauvist colors. Soon contrasting chords from brass and double basses carve dark undercurrents into the music. Like Béla Bartók, Adams sets up an undulating sound cloth, only to later puncture it with threatening bass drums. As with a work by Edgard Varèse, there is no easy listing comfort here. The structure never boasts of stability or even palpable thematic growth. Out of nowhere barbed flutes invade, hovering and buzzing like mosquitoes in a swamp, ready to dive. Conflicting forces retreat and attack repeatedly. Soon the beast, onslaught or maelstrom drains itself of energy and just expires. It’s a great piece to play over and over, as you try to figure out how Adams assembled his various musical effects, while consistently maintaining dramatic flow.   

The only trait that stops this CD from earning a five-star rating is its length. At only 47 minutes, producers could surely have added another intriguing orchestral work, like Adams’ 25-minute My Father Knew Charles Ives perhaps?


The Laboratory    
Guide To Strange Places

— Peter Bates

Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure