Speaking of John Adams

I was in a very good mood yesterday. Along with the usual trappings of a good mood, like an inspired reading of the Wicked Witch of the West in the latest nightly bedtime chapter of the Wizard of Oz, I found an immediate karmic balance in an unaccountable compulsion to listen to Rutter's Gloria. To excise this piece of musical pablum from my mental ipod, I decided today to listen to a cd I bought a little while ago: John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, as recorded by David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony.

The piece is based on the opera of roughly the same name, most of which I heard when it was simulcast from the Met in October 2008. Due to circumstances out of my control, I missed the middle, but heard the beginning and end. What I remember of it are some of Adams's distinctive musical constructions: obviously the signature minimalist perpetual motion, but the falling interval that described Joseph's angst at finding his wife pregnant in El Nino and a terrorist's attempt at explaining his motive in Death of Klinghoffer found its way into Robert Oppenheimer's existential discourse on the atomic bomb, sung by the amazing baritone Gerald Finley in the original production. There was a lot of play on "Trinity"- the name of the test, appearing in the libretto (through texts by John Donne, I found out later) and in a number of allusions throughout the other chosen texts. (I should point out that having read some of the libretto later, I was kind of glad that I got more of the music than the words on a first listen, but that's another post!) The ending was especially memorable: the warning siren signaling the first detonation of an atomic bomb is overlaid with a recording of Japanese woman asking for water, shifting from the pre-bomb world to the post. It was a very effective moment, I thought.

So I went into the recording of the Symphony with a number of expectations and preconceived notions, and came away a bit disappointed on the first listen. The piece is divided into three sections, The Laboratory, Panic, and Trinity. The first section has the normal moto perpetuo that defines a lot of Adams's work, punctuated by irregular percussive bursts from the brass section. This is what I missed on a first listen, while trying to hard to make sense of the piece in terms of the opera. While these certainly happen in the opera, and the opening of the symphony is essentially the same as the opening of the opera, the opera opening is necessarily setting up for dialogue that doesn't occur in the symphonic version.

The second movement passes vocal lines through the brass, creating an orchestrational dichotomy between the ragged, harsh spikes of the first movement and the melodic, if perhaps delirious, lines in this movement. Solos in the trombone, trumpet and tuba are clearly adaptations of sung parts, following the patterns set out in other Adams operas and choral works. The liner notes list Michael Sanders as the tubist, and Timothy Myers as principal trombone. Myers (presumably, since soloists aren't listed and it wouldn't be the first time I've mistaken instruments) does some wonderful playing on some very difficult passages, but Sanders (again, presumably) does yeoman work on what sounds like an incredibly difficult solo, coming across as in complete control at all times.

The ending movement mirrors the first- the powerful ending of the opera is changed, but the new ending brings closure to the themes developed as a necessity of the new medium. The very end invokes the same percussive brass, although more insistent and more often this time, with the strings clawing away through the moto underneath, until the entire affair is cut off abruptly with a final crash. This is definitely a reimagined symphony, and not a suite from the opera.

I don't know that I would recommend this as a starting point for folks who don't know Adams- I still think Naive and Sentimental Music is his most accessible large-scale work, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine the easiest to get in touch with overall. And it will probably confuse people who are expecting a Paganini-esque suite from the opera. But for those already familiar with his body of work and compositional tendencies, it's another solid entry to his catalog, and absolutely worth a few times through to get in touch with.

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